Are Classrooms and Playgrounds Serving Girls and Boys Equally?

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April Larremore, Ed.D., Dallas ISD Early Learning Department
By April Larremore, Ed.D., Dallas ISD Early Learning Department May 14, 2018

Schools are complex spaces with their own series of unspoken but widely understood rules. These rules influence students’ behaviors and actions. Through their experiences in this complex environment, children develop their own ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Spaces and places, and how we move within them, are deeply rooted in gender. Students are often limited in their choices concerning where they sit, play, and work. For instance, teachers often seat boys next to girls in order to manage their behavior. Boys are generally seen as overly active, loud, and unruly, whereas girls are regarded as quieter, more responsible, and as possessing calmer, more stationary bodies. This commonly leads to girl-boy-girl seating on the carpet, at the table, and in line. It also influences the ways teachers group students for centers and other small group activities.

For this same reason, boys typically occupy the space directly around and closest to the teacher. This positioning not only provides them a clear view of what they are supposed to do, but it also presents them with more possibilities for making eye contact with the teacher, something that is influential in gaining teacher attention and the opportunity to speak. To get boys to settle down and follow the rules, teachers often allow them more control over physical space. Girls are expected to sit in closed positions with their arms and legs crossed across their bodies, while boys are allowed to spread out and take up more space as long as they follow the rules and stay quiet.

Boys dominate not only classroom space, but also classroom talk. With the recent push in student-centered learning, classroom talk has become increasingly central to the teaching and learning process. However, in many cases, girls are not given equal access to this form of learning. Research shows that boys talk more than girls in terms of words uttered. In this instance, words uttered refers to the number of speaking turns taken and the number of interchanges with the teacher. Even when girls are involved in the discussion, their ideas are taken less frequently, and their contributions are praised far less often than those of boys. In addition, research reports that when speaking to the class, teachers make more eye contact with boys than girls, thus making it more likely for a boy to be called on to speak. More recent studies further these findings, affirming that boys use their voice to suggest their position and to attract and sustain an audience (the teacher and classmates). Based on these types of studies, it appears that girls are marginalized through both collaborative discussion in mixed groups as well as class discussion with the teacher.

While classrooms are viewed as highly controlled spaces where children are expected to conform to seating charts, daily routines, and structured schedules, playgrounds are made up of relatively unrestricted behaviors and offer free reign of space. While all children have access to playground space, their occupation of that space occurs in many different and unequal ways. Girls tend to occupy less space for their play than boys do, and they generally operate in groups of two or three, while boys are more likely to play in bigger groups and control much larger spaces. Similar to findings inside the classroom, boys typically demand more attention on the playground, even if the attention is negative. By playing large organized sports, boys lay claim to specific play spaces and displace other more passive ones. Even when girls play active games, they generally take up less space than boys do. While girls tend to walk around others’ play areas, boys generally walk through them, thus interrupting the play of those children. 

Playgrounds are spaces where friendships between children can be made, broken, and strengthened. Within these friendship cultures, children are strongly influenced and strongly influence each other to present themselves within gender appropriate play. Gender stereotypes have the power to limit the interests and choices that children make for themselves. Boys who engage in “girl’s games” are more likely to be criticized by parents, teachers, and peers than are girls who enjoy activities and materials that are labeled “for boys.”

What do we do with this information? If we intend to rethink gendered practices in school settings, we need to be willing and ready to challenge categorical thinking, go against gender stereotypes, and provide equal talk time to all students. Teachers need to develop school spaces where students can question taken-for-granted beliefs about gender norms and boundaries. This shift is possible when teachers reflect on their behavior management practices and the setup of the classroom environment, rethink the methods used to line students up and group students at their seats and on the carpet and reconsider the ways students are partnered for group activities.

Choice has been labeled a powerful force that allows students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning. Motivation to pay attention and work hard increases when students have opportunities to make choices about where they sit and work. Rather than using gender as a means of managing behavior, teach students how to choose a spot in line or on the carpet where they can be successful. In some cases, you may need to help students try out various places in the room over the course of several days.

Teachers can use talking chips and other verbal turn-taking strategies to prevent boys from controlling classroom talk. They can utilize the turn and talk strategy so that everyone has the chance to participate in class discussions. Randomly drawing student names using popsicle sticks will ensure students have an equal opportunity to participate and share their responses. Other helpful methods include having students take turns listening and speaking by using a talking stick or rolling a ball back and forth and use talking chips to give students equal talk time during partner and small group discussions. Talking partners should be rotated periodically to give students a chance to talk with all of their classmates.

Take notice of the ways students reinforce gender stereotypes on the playground and begin to draw attention to these behaviors in supportive ways. Stay aware of the ways students use space and help students negotiate boundaries when more is needed. Finally, refrain from restricting students’ play and interactions to what is considered gender appropriate by society’s standards. Alternatively, they can make room for students’ talk and actions by having conversations with them about the choices they make. The gendering of school spaces and places make gender differences feel and appear natural, so teachers must stay mindful of the words they use and the actions they take with their students.

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April Larremore works in the Early Learning Department for Dallas ISD and is an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas. She has worked in early childhood education for more than twenty years as a practitioner, instructional coach, curriculum writer, and professional development presenter. She received her Ed.D. in early childhood studies from the University of North Texas.  


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