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Gender in Preschoolers: How to Make the Preschool Experience Better for Both Boys and Girls
By Jody Mace

Despite banning toy guns from our house, I discovered my preschooler constructing a toy gun from a couple of sticks. Guns fashioned from LEGO® pieces and peanut butter sandwiches inevitably followed. I hadn’t let him watch violent cartoons. He was treated gently. We taught him to solve problems peacefully. So what was going on?

This is where experienced early childhood educators probably have a little laugh. They know that the differences between boys and girls are just as much nature as nurture. This isn’t to say that all boys play one way and all girls play another way. Children are individuals and their play preferences fall on a wide spectrum. And even a boy who chews his waffles into firearms isn’t necessarily a one-dimensional guy. My son, at that age, also picked flowers for me and often donned his big sister’s tutu. But, as a population, there are differences between boys and girls, and it is worthwhile to appreciate those differences and allow for them in the classroom.

Differences Start in the Brain
In Boys and Girls Learn Differently! Michael Gurian writes that many of the differences between how boys and girls play are due to chemical, hormonal, and functional differences in the brain. From the corpus callosum (the connection between the halves of the brain) which is bigger in females, to the testosterone racing around boys’ brains, a myriad of subtle differences combine to make boys’ and girls’ play different from each other. In addition, the parts of the brain associated with verbal learning develop earlier in girls, leading preschool-aged girls to sometimes be up to one year ahead of boys in verbal communications.

Some of the behavioral and learning differences, at the preschool level, Gurian writes, are:
 
• Boys seem to occupy larger space on the playground.
• Girls tend to congregate in groups, in smaller spaces.
• Boys’ playground games tend to be rougher, and involve more running.
• When girls play with blocks they tend to build low and long structures.
• Boys’ block structures are high and prone to toppling over. 
• Boys seem to enjoy action stories, but girls enjoy stories that address the characters’ feelings.
• More often than not, both boys and girls pick same-gender peers for friends.
• Girls are usually stronger in verbal communication, whereas boys are stronger in spatial thinking.

Classroom Management
On one hand, teachers, recognizing the genuine differences between boys and girls, know not to try to force them to act the same. On the other hand, just because a behavior is gender-typical (physical aggression for boys, verbal aggression for girls, for example) doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable. The challenge is to provide an environment where their strengths can shine and their weak areas can be nurtured.
 
• Challenge incorrect assumptions. When children say, “Pink is a girls’ color” or “Only boys can be basketball players,” they’re using their observations to try to sort out the world. Don’t hesitate to say, “Girls play basketball, too,” or “Boys wear pink,” and show them evidence to back it up. 
• Don’t underestimate the amount of physical movement boys need. Outside time may not be enough. Provide large motor activities for the classroom as well – a hopscotch rug, for example.
• Gurian suggests a permanent “feelings corkboard,” with feelings words like “sad,” “scared,” and “excited.” Throwing safe, plastic darts at the words gives action-oriented children a way to access, and then talk about, their feelings.
• Bring in male role models from the community or from older classrooms. The approval or disapproval from a man or an older male is a powerful motivator for a young boy. Also, they can help challenge assumptions by showing that men like to read or that they can be gentle.
• Capitalize on that male energy by having boys help move things around in the classroom or perform other classroom tasks like sweeping and mopping. Not only will the “heavy lifting” settle their bodies, but you might have the cleanest floors in the school!
• Organize kickball or other simple ball games to help girls develop their gross motor skills.
• Sometimes louder, more assertive boys tend to dominate, so help organize working groups where girls are sometimes the leaders.
• Have digital cameras handy to take pictures of children being successful in tasks around the classroom. Seeing these pictures helps children, especially girls, feel good about themselves.
• Set and enforce limits that keep children safe and reflect the values of your classroom, such as no wrestling or pretend gun play. But also recognize that some physical contact can be useful. Gurian contends that many boys nurture each other in ways that look aggressive, like bumping into each other, and that it’s important to allow that behavior in some way. Boys needs to learn to modulate their physical contact with each other and learn each other’s limits, but if there is a strict “no touching” policy, they may not get the chance to do that.

Classroom Resources
It’s important to respect the innate differences between girls and boys, but still bust stereotypes about gender. Books can help preschoolers, who are just figuring out what boys and girls are all about, to develop a more open-minded view about gender.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch: This upside down fairy tale has become a classic. A brave princess rescues her prince and then decides that she doesn’t need him after all.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Gentle boys will appreciate this timeless story about the bull who preferred smelling the flowers to fighting.

Clever Katya: A Tale from Old Russia by Mary Hoffman: A young girl outwits the Tsar of Russia to win a foal for her father.

Max by Rachel Isadora: A young boy discovers that he has a talent, not just for baseball, but for ballet.

Night Pirates by Peter Harris: A boy joins a crew of tough little girl pirates on a quest to steal a treasure from adult pirates.

Jody Mace is a freelance writer who lives in North Carolina. She also teaches creative writing to children. Some of her work can be found at www.jodymace.com.