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The Problem Solving Parent: Your Child at Play
By Eleanor Reynolds

For months now, the girls in my older preschool class have been playing “princesses-getting-married.” Almost every day, several girls put on fancy dress-up clothes and act out a wedding. Although there are boys in the class, the boys never ask or volunteer to join this play, so one girl plays the role of the “prince.” While the wedding is going on, most of the boys are on trikes riding around the room, sporting firefighter helmets and putting out fires. Often the boys wear construction worker hard hats and noisily fix things with toy tools. The two groups sometimes glance at each other in mild amusement, but they almost never interact.

If a researcher observed only those few moments of play, he could make the case that boys and girls never play together. However, in my classes, which include a small, unscientific sampling of children, boys and girls do play together. Boys sometimes pretend to cook and go shopping and girls work in the store or office. Both sexes put on Superhero capes and “fly” off our indoor climber. They build with blocks, work on puzzles, draw and paint and play in our castle. I cannot say with certainty that my classroom is typical, however, I can say that the children in my classes are normal, every day kids. We can infer that their play is normal and typical as well.

During the past few decades, there has been a great deal of research on gender differences in children’s play and what those differences might mean. Numerous books and articles are trying to help parents understand and act upon the research. Of course, we know there are biological and environmental influences on both boys and girls. These influences result in some behavioral differences: Boys appear to be more physically active, aggressive, competitive, and less comfortable expressing emotions; girls appear to be more sedentary, passive, cooperative, and emotionally expressive.
The problem in making observations about a group of children is that every child is an individual. There is always a danger in stereotyping people, whether by gender, race, religion or any other category, even when done with the best of intentions. When we try to place children into categories, we risk limiting their real strengths, interests, and talents. Your child is unique and although it is helpful to read what the experts have to say about boy play versus girl play, it is more important to learn about your child from your child. By watching your own child, encouraging her to experiment with a variety of toys and activities, and allowing her to further explore those activities that catch her fancy, you will know more about your child than any expert could ever know.
How can you learn more about your own child’s interests? First, keep an open mind. As with food, expose your child to a variety of children and experiences. Your local playground is a good place to watch your child interact with other children. If possible, take your child to a hands-on children’s museum so he can choose from many activities. Find a toy store that specializes in high-quality toys; your child will gravitate toward those he finds most appealing. The children’s department of your library will open your child’s mind to new wonders and ideas. If your child is involved in a playgroup, ask the teacher about your child’s interests. When you visit other homes, watch to see which toys or activities are exciting to your child. Limit TV programs with toy commercials aimed at children; they tend to direct children to the poorest-quality toys.

As your child develops, her interests will change; be flexible enough to follow her lead. When a toy or activity is no longer age appropriate and challenging, your child will lose interest. When you buy toys, begin with basics: Toys that have more than one function, require imagination, and present a challenge. For example, there are many kinds of building blocks at every age level, from stacking blocks to wooden unit blocks to complex locking blocks. Music offers a range of activities, including singing, playing instruments, and dancing. Arts and crafts materials are multi-functional to stimulate imagination and introduce challenges. Remember to read to your child; reading together not only enriches your minds, but enhances your parent-child relationship. Help your child and yourself learn more about himself, his interests, and his world through play.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com.