Particular provision must be provided for the boys in early years settings. Here Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton discuss what early years practitioners can do

Ensuring your setting provides opportunities for all children to thrive will lie at the heart of all that you do. All children are different, with their own particular preferences, interests and ways of engaging with the world. That said, boys as a group have been singled out by many practitioners as needing particular attention when planning appropriate provision.

Nature and nurture
We are all aware from our own experience that boys and girls do seem to behave differently. Part of what makes each of us unique comes from nature – the characteristics we are born with, and part from nurture – the experiences we have while growing up. In practice it is very difficult to distinguish between these two types of influences. Vitally important stages in the maturation of the brain only take place after a baby has been born. During the first year of life the cortex of the brain, used for thinking, reasoning and language, increases threefold in volume as connections called synapses are formed between the neurons. These synapses form as a result of the experiences which a baby has and the stimuli he or she receives from the surrounding environment. The more often a stimulus is repeated the more synapses form and the stronger the connections become. This creates a network of interlinked nerve cells along which messages can travel easily.

From birth onwards we tend to differentiate between boy and girl babies by the language we use when talking to them, our expectations of how they will behave and the toys we give them to play with. All these actions will reinforce their identities as boys or girls. By the time they reach preschool age evidence shows that girls are more drawn to activities that involve an adult – which tend to be table top activities involving talk and discussion. Boys on the other hand are attracted to activities where adults are not so evident – construction, climbing and gross motor activities. As a female-dominated profession we must be aware of the danger of allowing our personal preferences to value the activities which girls enjoy more than those which boys like.

Practical ideas
To provide interesting experiences which will engage boys it is important to play to their strengths. Research shows that the male brain is predominantly hard wired for understanding and building systems – boys are fascinated by taking things apart to see how they work. Boys’ visual systems are also more attuned to movement, location and direction than to colour and texture – they learn best when they can move around and experience things physically. Use this information to plan experiences that will help boys to fulfil their potential. For example:

  • Utilise boys’ interest in superhero play to encourage them to create worlds for aliens to live in. This could be on a large scale out of doors using natural materials, sand and water and by building dens, or on a small scale indoors using small world play characters and blocks.
  • Use guttering, pipes, funnels, tubing, hoses, crates and boxes to create a water exploratory area. Think up a challenge such as, ‘Can you find a way to move the water from one side of the garden to the other?’ Encourage team work and collaboration and foster the dispositions of persistence and resilience.
  • Set up an outdoor laboratory with magnifiers, collecting pots, clipboards and identification charts. Encourage the boys to be eco-warriors, discovering woodlice, worms, ants, slugs and snails. Help the children to look closely, describe what they see and create their own records and tally sheets.
  • Equip the role play area with resources for it to become a garage, a builder’s merchants or a workshop. Capitalise on the opportunities to encourage mark making through the need to create lists, inventories, notices and labels.
  • Make up small collections of resources that will engage boys’ attention such as a collection of keys and locks or a collection of nuts and bolts. Encourage them to explore the resources and help them to develop their reasoning skills and descriptive language as well as their fine motor skills.
  • Encourage the use of the bikes for a purpose by helping to convert them into delivery vans, emergency vehicles or removal vans. Use this as a way to encourage problem solving and using mathematical language.

By creating these sorts of opportunities which capitalise on boys’ interests you will be making it easier for them to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and competence. Getting it right for the boys will help to provide opportunities for all the children in your setting, girls as well as boys, to achieve success.

  • Links with EYPS Standards: S2, S7, S8, S11, S12, S13, S24, S27, S28
  • Links with Ofsted SEF: Section 3, 5k, 6l, 6n

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update