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A little playground help: Why can’t girls and boys play together?

March 3, 2012 – 10:26 PM

By Katie Culver

Have you been to recess lately?

It just so happens that I have. Recently, I volunteered for recess duty at my son’s school. (He’s in first grade.)

There is plenty to say about recess – including that at many schools there is simply not enough of it. Some low-performing schools have eliminated recess to increase time on academics in hopes of raising tests scores, despite much research which demonstrates the value of recess. But this post is not about that.

It’s about the lost opportunity of recess. As a former teacher, as a parent, and as a (former) kid myself, it’s not difficult to see that free play time tends to be very segregated by gender. To anyone who pays attention it seems clear that girls and boys have very different play time interests.

But why is this? How much is socialization and girls being quietly (almost invisibly) discouraged from playing sports in their free time?   (My dissertation on the subject here). As someone who has studied this phenomenon, I love to see girls play soccer or basketball at recess, but research shows that boys control TEN times as much space on the playground or the courts, plus much of the equipment (Thorne, 1997, p.83; see Gender Play for a full investigation of this topic).

You will see the girls shooting baskets off to the side (and with the not quite fully-inflated ball) while boys dominate the play space in a large, organized game. Furthermore, boys are more likely to interrupt all-girl games. With this domination of space and “claimed entitlement…playgrounds are basically male turf” (Thorne, 1997, p.83).

At my son’s school, he often spends recess playing a game that involves chasing the girls or them chasing him. But many days he plays basketball or soccer with a group of boys (yes, I ask him every day who he played with and if it was a sports game, it is never girls). On the day I volunteered, he was in a heated game of basketball with seven other boys. One girl sat on the curb watching. I asked her if she wanted to play. She responded, “no,” but said that she plays with her older brother at home.

Wasn’t this a lost opportunity for her (and for the boys)?

I won’t argue that recess supervisors need to insist the girls jump into the boys’ games (though that would be great!). But I will argue that teachers and school staff need to insure that girls have equal access to equipment and space — and are encouraged to use them. We may need to help girls become confident enough to play with the boys or to command their own games.

When girls and boys play together, they both benefit and learn from one another. We don’t need to have boys versus girls (though that is often the default position when teachers/supervisors lack other ways to identify opposing players). Maybe it’s time to get some pinnies, provide some support, and let boys AND girls take control of the play space at recess.

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