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Engaging Boys in Early Childhood Learning

By Sarah Metzger
Engaging Boys in Early Childhood Learning

Climbing frames enable children’s proprioception receptors to be calmed, ready for focused activity work. (Photo source: Sarah Metzger)

While this article focuses on addressing a single binary identity, the author wishes to state that there are many forms of gender identity and that within the context of an early childhood setting, many community members will identify with a diverse range of gender identities. Our school environments should be inclusive to all.

A couple of years ago, I had for the first time, a larger percentage of boys than girls in my class. This led to a range of social and emotional situations that have never previously been as dominant in my setting. It led me to ask the question “why?”. Why am I having to resolve conflicts more frequently? Why am I noticing more students struggling with their interactions with each other? Why is there less engagement happening in my day? Why am I having to direct the students more frequently toward their play? It was important when asking these questions that I opened myself up to reflect on the provisions and experiences I was providing for them.

It soon became apparent that my classroom was more heavily biased toward the needs and interests of girls. It had evolved naturally. I am a girl; I like to work on focused fine motor activities. I am comfortable communicating my ideas and role-playing. The more I researched, the more I realized I am not alone in this unconscious bias. In early childhood classrooms, as teachers, we often gear our activities and learning areas toward female interests and skills. It makes sense, as the proportion of female to male teachers in this setting is far greater. Research shows that it is common for boys to develop gross motor skills earlier than fine motor skills. There is a higher likelihood that they will be late speakers and have a more limited vocabulary. It is also common that they show frustration more easily than their female peers. According to the article, Boys Lagging Behind When School Starts, “Testosterone can impact on serotonin which is primarily linked to processing emotions and acts as a calming mechanism.” Despite all this, our classrooms are often set up to value seated work that relies on fine motor skills and conversation. Even the nature of a timetable can be heavily led by the needs of the girls.

Natural opportunities for labeling in outdoor activities and mud kitchens provide opportunities for building language, mathematical understanding, and social-emotional learning. (Photo source: Sarah Metzger)

In many preschools and early childhood centers, children often begin the day indoors participating in a circle time and move outside as the children show the need for more space and gross motor time. Imagine if we switched this? If we began the day outdoors, exploring nature, developing gross motor skills, building social skills. What impact would this have on the engagement, interest levels, and achievement of the boys in our classes? After posing this question, I decided to try it to see what would happen if we switched things around. On the days where our environment allowed for it, I took my kids outside to begin the day. What I discovered was, after the initial crazy run around, all my students started to engage in meaningful interactions with each other and the space. They started to naturally tell stories, collaborate on games, and communicate their ideas. It became easier to problem solve as they all had a natural desire for the play to continue. It became obvious that this was a natural space for children to engage in gross motor activities that boys benefit from whilst still developing their understanding of the academic curriculum. Due to differences in hormone levels, boys often choose to play more aggressive games that take greater risks. They need bigger spaces to play in and move freely. By allowing them this opportunity to begin their day outdoors, we were providing for this need, allowing them to feel successful rather than controlled like they had in the more formal indoor setting.

Being purposeful in planning for this time is key to ensuring that the students are able to develop a wide range of skills. Looking for natural opportunities to develop math understanding, science concepts, and language vocabulary. Providing tools, construction materials, blackboards for mark making, long paint brushes for water painting, and having space for children to draw on vertical surfaces enables the academic needs to be met while also giving their bodies the sensory input needed so their minds can be focused once in a more restricted space. Studies have shown that heavy-work type proprioception activities can have a calming effect on children. According to the article, Self Regulation and Sensory Processing, “15 minutes of this type of activity can have a 1-2 hour positive effect.” Proprioception activities can be used to help calm, organize, and self-regulate the brain and nervous system.

We all know, though, that the outdoors is not always an option. So how could we meet the needs of our students whilst restricted to our indoor spaces? It is important to keep in mind the same philosophies applied to outdoors when designing our classroom spaces. Boys need space to move around. They need tools that allow for the development of fine motor that are not restricted to small, contained work. Language development needs to be carefully encouraged in a stress-free way and they need support with collaborating and communicating their ideas. Ensuring our spaces are not dominated by seated focused activities, that children are given plentiful opportunities to move around, and that the required carpet time be kept at a minimum will benefit not just the boys in our class but all students.

No matter the percentage of boys in your environment, it is important that their needs are met. We, as educators, need to step back, observe, and be open to the idea that we may need to change some things or provide new opportunities to ensure that everyone is truly meeting their potential.

Sarah Metzger teaches at the American International School of
 Bucharest in Romania.

Twitter: @Sarah_Metz1
School Twitter: @AISBucharest


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