Nursery worker Leanne Shaw reveals what really happens when boys and girls are offered a range of toys, and reflects on the importance of toys and play in the early years.
As I walked into the garden, the scene that greeted me was children playing. The sound was the wind blowing and the children chatting and laughing. From 18 months to 4 years, they played together in the sunshine. As I watched I noticed that children of different ages were playing together, as were boys and girls.
I saw several children in the sand pit, working together to build a giant sand pile. They used blue, green, yellow and pink spades. None of the children thought about the colour of the spade they had, they were entirely focused on making the mound as large as possible.
Another mixed group of children were running round the garden. A girl was pretending to be a monster, roaring at the rest of them, who were screaming and giggling and running away from her.
At the water tray two 1 year olds were pouring water from yellow and orange cups.
Two boys were sitting on upturned buckets, having a chat.
Indoors, a group of three boys were in the role play, setting up a cafe, and cooking meals of wooden food for the staff. A girl was dressing up as some type of cross between a police officer and ballet dancer. The creative table had some great junk modelling going on, where one girl was making a helicopter.
These children were learning and playing together, with no divide in the activities of boys and girls. Children of this age do not see gender divides, unless they are taught to do so. However, society works hard to limit these children, and by the time that are only a little older, many children have become restricted in what they play with, choosing only what they think is ‘expected’ of them.
Let Toys Be Toys supporter Alistair has taught in primary schools for eleven years, and has noticed that “it is clear children want to play with all the toys – if only they were not watched by adults or others with negative or ‘awkward questions’ for them.”
Fixed attitudes to what is proper play for girls and boys can give children fixed ideas about what is ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’. Laura, a teacher from Hampshire says “it breaks my heart that boys see normal every day necessities like cleaning, cooking and feeding babies to be girl’s jobs.”
What makes for free choice?
Tina, a childminder for over 20 years, doesn’t see a big difference in boys’ and girls’ play, “Though I have lots of different toys in the house I tend to just get a few things out at a time, and when the older ones come in after school they’ll usually all play together with whatever we decide to get out that day. Yesterday it was Lego, the day before it was Polly Pockets. When we do a craft activity together the boys get just as involved as the girls.
‘In the day the toddlers play with dollies, buggies, Duplo, whatever… At home it might be a different story because they’re just not offered the same things. I once gave a toy ironing board and iron to a little boy for his 5th birthday. His granny exclaimed, ‘What a strange present for a boy!’, but I’d chosen it because he loved playing with the one at my house so much!’
Toys matter – developing skills
As an early years practitioner, I see the benefits children get from playing with toys. I have worked in this day nursery for three years, and was a registered childminder before that. I have studied the role of play in children’s development, and know that it is the way children explore and make sense of the world around them. Children learn by exploring, finding things out, experimenting, practising, testing their boundaries, social interactions. Toys allow them to do all this is a safe, non-challenging environment.
Aly Murray is the manager of a large day nursery in the south of England. She explains, “I think children should be able to play with all toys, as children learn new skills and knowledge from all toys. Separating toys into girls and boys does not allow for this creative learning to happen and could hinder a child learning something they need for their future.”
A boy in the role-play area will learn language, imagination, social, and physical skills just as a girl will, and a girl will learn balance, spatial awareness and stamina from a bike, just like a boy will. Every child needs to learn to count, read and write and these skills have their formative beginnings in play during the early years. It also confuses the child from an early age making them wonder why they cannot play with certain things but others can, not helping with skills like turn-taking and sharing.”
Play and social development
As I explored the garden further, I joined in the play of some of the groups. The children in the sand pit explained to me that what I thought was a mound of sand was in fact a volcano. I saw these children using their physical skills to use the large spades (which was a challenge for some of the younger children).
They spoke to each other, made plans, altered them when it fell down, and negotiated rules when another child wanted to knock it down. They moved around each other without bumping into anyone, improving their spatial awareness. One of the children counted how many scoops he added, and was trying to add more than another child, so developing mathematical language and counting skills.
Play without limits
Children have great imaginations, and love for learning. Let’s not limit them by expecting them to play with the toys our society things they ‘should’ play with, let them make their own choices and play, learn and develop into the rounded, amazing people we know they can be.
Sandpit photo: T Craiu