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A Hybrid Workshop, “Thinking About Boys,” for Spartanburg County First Steps

by Mary MacKenzie, Senior Fellow, Institute for Child Success

Mary MacKenzie (standing) discusses the nuances of boys. Thomas Compton (foreground), manager of a Quality Counts center.

On Saturday, April 17, I presented to Spartanburg County First Steps, Quality Counts early childhood settings on the subject, “Thinking about Boys.” This followed a formula we used last fall, whereby the live portion of the program took place in a setting with the childcare providers present (all duly masked and socially distanced) and then, simultaneously, the presentation was streamed to five satellite locations via Zoom. The aim of the session was to identify differences in boys’ and girls’ development, to explore whether girls and boys learn differently, and to think about implications for practice and devise strategies. The presentation was based on research from an excellent book entitled, Getting it Right for Boys, written by Neil Farmer, an eminent early year’s consultant in the United Kingdom. Farmer explores why boys do what they do and how to make the early years work for them.

I started the session by saying, I did not want to stereotype boys in any way, but rather to identify what research and experience have shown. I explained that we should develop ways to improve the educational experience of boys in early childhood while tapping into their interests and energy. Concurrently, I wanted to help make the teaching experience of the childcare providers less challenging and more fulfilling and enjoyable.

The childcare providers were very engaged, and we had constructive discussions on their experiences and how to come up with ideas to improve the experience for both the children and the educators. Thomas Compton, the manager of a Quality Counts Center, co-hosted with me and was extremely helpful in giving anecdotal evidence to substantiate theory, drawing from his personal experience of having three brothers and being the father of a small boy. During the session we also did role-play in the form of musical chairs where the members of staff enacted squabbles occurring over two children wanting one chair and then by talking through using conscious discipline. I know from experience that role play is usually dreaded by participants, but the staff was very engaged, realistic, and believable as “unruly boys.”

We spoke about what boys enjoy doing most, what members of staff love about boys and what they find most challenging. We talked about the differences in cognitive development between girls and boys, and linked these to the Early Learning Standards. We reflected on the continuum in relation to children, and obviously as all children are unique and individual, how we need to guard against stereotyping. Gender behavior can be unconscious or learned and may arise from expectations of family or society. We also discussed typical attitudes or sayings about boys, the importance of helping children understand and cope with their emotions, and looked at attachments and relationships.

One of the areas highlighted was the importance of physical outdoor play and how rough-and-tumble play is integral to children’s holistic development. We also noted how Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), the chemical produced in the brain through movement, is key to learning. In his book, Getting it Right for Boys, Neil Farmer talks about a universal area of concern, rough-and-tumble play and how we can differentiate between this and aggressive play. I presented a chart from the book which listed the differences between the two forms of play. For example, with the former, children smile and laugh. They are willing participants and eagerly join in; and a lot of children will participate with no spectators. In the latter, children frown, stare, cry and get red in the face; one child usually dominates another; and it usually involves just two children and draws a crowd. There was a lot of discussion around this dynamic with some practitioners saying they were going to laminate the chart and put it on the wall as an aid.

From Neil Farmer’s book, Getting it Right for Boys

We explored the adult role in providing opportunities for boys (and girls) to engage in self-initiated activities, allowing them to concentrate for extended periods as appropriate. We also need to be aware of adult attitude and challenge stereotypes and believe in boys! How we often commiserate with others when we hear they have a particularly large number of boys in their setting—why do we do this and what message is this sending? We also considered the early childhood workforce which is predominantly female and how we can ensure the children are exposed to positive male role models. In Sally Featherstone’s book entitled, The Cleverness of Boys, she writes, “The difference in what males and females can do is small, the difference is in how they do it.”

We spent a good part of the Zoom session discussing the activities of the different centers represented. As usual, the practical experiences of the knowledgeable caregivers gave impetus to the theory and evoked very thoughtful reflections. We ended the session looking at the implications for practice and discussing what the boys need, what the staff could do to provide this, and coming up with possible solutions and actions to implement in the future.

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