Girls and boys are just different, aren’t they?

Boys are better at climbing, and girls are better at drawing, right? Wrong - and here's why ...

How the encouragement of different motor skills upholds existing stereotypes and impedes child development

By Olivia Leahy – Volunteer Writer at not only pink and blue

There’s an age-old belief held by society that young boys and girls are naturally better at different activities. Stereotypically, it is thought that girls are, by nature, stronger at activities such as drawing, painting and baking, whereas boys thrive in activities involving sports and physical movement. This is simply not the case. These stereotypes have grown out of the encouragement of girls and boys to pursue tasks that use differing motor skills. Not only is this preserving sexist and incorrect societal beliefs, but the stereotyping of children based on their gender is detrimental to children’s development and understanding of their own abilities.

Nature vs Nurture

Girls are more likely to be encouraged to engage in activities that enhance their passive or fine motor skills – tasks involving pencils, paint brushes, and other hand-held items, which take place in quiet, often individual spaces. Boys, on the other hand, are consistently encouraged to develop their gross motor skills, kicking a ball or climbing a tree, outside tasks, usually making noise and playing with others. This then results in girls being better at passive motor skills, and boys better at gross motor skills. But it is not because they are more naturally gifted at these motor skills. A study from the University of Stavanger, reported that although young girls are often more advanced in their passive and fine motor skills, this is not always the case; it also illustrated that “in the gross motor area, such as kicking a large ball, riding a tricycle or running and jumping, there were no differences between boys and girls.”

Stereotypes in Schools

Countless attempts at enforcing stereotypes are evidently at play here. In terms of gross motor skills, this encouragement of boys stems from the old-fashioned bias towards boys participating in sports and not girls. This created the notion that boys were more athletic and strong in comparison to girls, but this is clearly because they have been encouraged to refine their gross motor skills over their passive or fine ones. From this unmistakable discrimination on the basis of sex, arises the well used classroom mantra, “Can I have a strong boy to help me lift/move this?”. This mantra is evidently harmful to girls who are immediately told that they are not strong enough because of their gender.

Speaking of classroom gender discrimination, the encouragment of boys to develop their gross motor skills over their fine ones, and for girls to do the opposite, also adversely impacts young boys. While boys are encouraged to engage in physical tasks, their fine motor skills remain underdeveloped which creates an unlevel playing field in the academic side of education. In school, young boys are seen as less developed or even less mature because of their “bad” handwriting or inability to sit still for a long period of time in comparison to girls. This is purely down to girls being encouraged from a young age to use pencils and pens and refine their fine motor skills which results in more legible handwriting and more patience than boys. Boys handwriting is not naturally worse than girls – it is down to their underdeveloped fine motor skills which stem from societal bias and stereotypes.

Studies suggest …

The classroom dynamics and the gendering of tasks are made clear in a study carried out by the academic journal Education. Teachers in one US study found that “boys are often verbally encouraged to become actively involved in a variety of gross motor activities such as running, jumping and climbing. Girls … are often verbally encouraged to become actively involved in quieter and more passive fine motor activities…”[1] The study also formulated a list, compiled through research, of things that classroom teachers should avoid doing in order to break away from these stereotypes and the biassed encouragement of different motor skills. For example, staff should guard against “praising girls for neatness while praising boys for intellectual ability”; “encouraging girls in their domestic play but not similarly encouraging boys in this play” and “encouraging boys but not girls to engage in messy mud play” should also be avoided [2].

This list highlights in flashing lights the regular use and maintenance of gender stereotypes in classrooms; it is shocking to see that this study has to actively tell educational institutions to essentially not treat boys and girls differently in the classroom. It feels as though treating children equally should be a given, but unfortunately the reality of this is much more complex. As stereotypes are so pervasive in society, even those who believe they would never stereotype a child based on gender, fall into the trap on a subconscious level of stereotyping children. So, fundamentally, in order for fair treatment based on gender to take place in the classroom, the omnipresence of stereotypes in society needs to be tackled. Serious change needs to take place for gender biases in the classroom to be a thing of the past.

Also, aren’t the names of these motor skills perpetuating gender stereotypes further too? Is it a coincidence that girls are encouraged to engage in motor skills labelled “fine” or “passive” while boys are told to refine their “gross” ones?  These terms alone suggest enforced gender norms in child development.

Resources

These findings are deeply concerning, but they are also easily resolved. Purely by encouraging children to pursue both fine/passive and gross motor skills, we can show them that their capabilities are not restricted by convention and we can allow girls and boys to develop alongside each other, without one gender being vastly better at something than the other. You can help every child to develop all of these critical motor skills with a range of gender neutral toys, books and more, which you can find in our directory here. Brands such as OKIDO, who encourage STEM learning in a gender neutral way through magazines and toys, are a great way to show children that they are capable of pursuing anything (use the code NOPAB15 to get 15% off OKIDO through our directory). All The Kids, who celebrate gender-inclusive products designed to help children learn through play, have beautiful wooden toys and sensory drawing packs to encourage boys and girls to refine their fine motor skills. For parents and teachers, check out our resource page, to find helpful information sheets, books, organisations and more, all of which focus on removing gender stereotypes.

[1] Mac Naughton, Glenda Williams, Gillian McGraw-Hill, “Teaching Young Children: Choices in Theory and Practice,” Education (Nov 2008), p76

[2] Mac Naughton, Glenda Williams, Gillian McGraw-Hill, “Teaching Young Children: Choices in Theory and Practice,” Education (Nov 2008), p76

Photo by Ana Klipper on Unsplash 

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