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When girls and boys play: what research tells us.

Research on play suggests that children of all ages benefit from engaging in play activities (Bergen, 2004). With the recent emphasis on standards and testing, however, many teachers have felt the increased pressure to spend time on structured learning events, leaving few moments of relaxation in a child's day (Chenfeld, 2006). Many elementary schools have even reduced or eliminated recess times in an effort to give children more time to work on academics (Clements, 2000). That is unfortunate, as findings from studies of play indicate that play helps children to develop social, language, and physical skills.

While beneficial for both, play often differs for girls and boys (see Gallas, 1998; Gurian & Stevens, 2005). This article reviews research related to the differences found between the genders as they play and the benefits that elementary children can gain from play. In addition, the authors include suggestions for educators regarding children's play at school.


Girls and Boys Sharing Social Interactions During Play

Researchers have found differences in the way the genders socialize during play. In an early study examining gender and play, Lever (1978) found several differences in how 5th-grade girls and boys play. For example, boys played more competitive, rule-oriented, group games than did girls; girls interacted in smaller groups, had conversations, and walked and talked with friends more often than did boys. Lever concluded that the nature of boys' team games and their experiences with rule-dictated play: 1) allowed for the development of cooperation skills between peers with differing ideas, 2) afforded them opportunities to work independently to accomplish a common task, and 3) provided motivation to abide by established rules.

Other recent studies have found results similar to those of Lever (1978). A study of elementary students at recess conducted by Butcher (1999) indicated that boys more often participated in competitive games, and girls chose activities that allowed them to have conversations. Likewise, Lewis and Phillipsen (1998) found that elementary-age boys at recess played physically active group games with rules more often than did girls. However, in contrast to Lever's (1978) findings on groupings during recess, Lewis and Phillipsen (1998) noted that while girls tended to play in small groups, boys tended to play in groups of various sizes, from dyads to more than five children.

Also consistent with Lever's (1978) findings, a study of 4th-graders by Goodwin (2001) indicated that boys tended to form social structures, wherein the boys who were more skilled at the activity took the lead and directed the players. Boys with less skill were allowed to play but were not allowed a leadership role. In contrast, girls' leadership roles during games of jump rope did not depend on their ability to carry out the physical tasks of the game. Instead of one girl taking the lead, several girls directed the games; however, Goodwin (2001) found that the girls were more likely to exclude others from their play than were the boys.

Even very young children tend to be socially influenced by playing with same-sex peers. For example, Martin and Fabes' (2001) investigation of preschool and kindergarten children at play indicated that playing with same-gender peers affects play behaviors. Their research findings added to the evidence (e.g., Boyatzis, Mallis, & Leon, 1999; Thorne, 1993) that children often choose to play with same-sex peers. Additionally, Martin and Fabes found gender-typical behaviors for children who more often played with same-sex peers. For instance, the girls who most often played with other girls were generally less active during play and chose to play in areas close to adults. Boys who played with other boys more often engaged in play that was more aggressive and farther from adult supervision. This stereotypical play was found less often in children who tended to play with the opposite sex.

Not all students have positive social experiences during play activities. Some students may have difficulty developing the appropriate skills necessary for positive peer interactions. Children with inadequate social skills may tend to behave inappropriately during times of free play, such as recess (Blatchford, 1998). Rather than limit free play due to inappropriate behavior, however, these times can provide opportunities for conflict resolution interventions. In one study by Butcher (1999), the researchers trained college students to use conflict resolution strategies when interacting with 1st-through 6th-graders during recess times. The volunteers provided positive feedback, modeled appropriate social skills, and implemented strategies to increase cooperation among the children. As a result, when the numbers were analyzed, combining all grade levels, the means for the number of incidents of inappropriate targeted behaviors (i.e., violent behavior, verbal abuse, and inappropriate equipment use) declined during interventions. However, it is important to note that when the results were analyzed according to gender, significant differences were found in the reduction of targeted behaviors for boys only. No significant differences were found for girls' behavior. The researchers suggested that this lack of difference for the girls was due to the limited number of negative behaviors the girls initially exhibited (Butcher, 1999).

Overall Play and the Social Development of Children

By the time children reach school age, play typically becomes a social activity (Jarrett & Maxwell, 2000). As children play with others, they begin to learn what behaviors are expected and acceptable in their society. Playing with peers permits children to adjust to the expected norms (Fromberg, 1998).

Opportunities for free play with limited adult intervention provide time for children to explore which behaviors are accepted among their peers (Wortham, 2002). As younger children associate in play situations, they begin to realize that play ends if they do not negotiate behaviors and cooperate; therefore, play helps children learn to regulate their behaviors in order to continue playing together (Heidemann & Hewitt, 1992; Poole, Miller, & Church, 2004).

For older children, recess can be a time for learning about and adjusting to peer expectations. Pellegrini and Blatchford's (2002) findings suggest that recess play provides children with time to enter into social relationships early in the school year, which, in turn, helps them in social situations throughout the year. Pellegrini, Blatchford, Kato, and Baines (2004) also found that recess allowed opportunities for children to increase positive social experiences. For the 7- and 8-year-old participants in their study, basic games played at the beginning of the school year permitted the children time to get acquainted with peers, leading to more advanced play once the children became more familiar with each other. Additionally, Jarrett et al. (1998) speculated that children who move from one school to another find recess times helpful in adjusting and making new friends.


Girls and Boys Expressing Language During Play

Research indicates that the types of games in which girls often engage may support language development differently than the types of games boys typically play. Blatchford, Baines, and Pellegrini (2003) studied playground activities of children in England during the year the children turned 8 years old. The researchers found that girls held significantly more conversations and played significantly more verbal games than did boys. Goodwin (2002) also found that 4th- through 6th-grade girls spent most of their playtime talking with one another. Their games tended to require close proximity to one another, thus allowing for extended conversations. Conversely, some studies found that the games boys tended to choose often involved language usage that was more instruction-oriented, with boys verbally directing the play actions of one another (Boyle, Marshall, & Robeson, 2003; Goodwin, 2001).

Overall Play and Language Skill Development of Children

Play is a natural environment for children's language development (Perlmutter & Burrell, 1995). Children use language during their solitary play as well as in social play encounters (Piaget, 1962). Both expressive and receptive language skills are needed to plan, explain, and execute play activities. Language skills give children the ability to cooperate in creating and prolonging their play episodes (Van Hoorn, Monighan-Nourot, Scales, & Alward, 2003).

Developing language skills facilitates peer relationships. Piaget (1962) theorized that the talk of preschool-age children is egocentric (i.e., talk that is not for the sake of communicating with others). Very young children verbalize without a need for others to enter into the conversation; however, as older children begin to interact more often with adults and peers, the need to communicate arises. Egocentric speech gradually subsides and social speech takes over as children practice using language (Ginsburg & Opper, 1979).

Language is a major factor in social play scenarios, such as sociodramatic play in which children create pretend play episodes and take on the roles of others. Language in the context of play provides children with the ability to develop strategies for cooperation, engage in varied and complex play themes, and share perspectives about their world (Van Hoorn et al., 2003). Children's language guides their play and provides the communication needed for the continuation of the play (Guddemi, 2000; Heidemann & Hewitt, 1992).

Language usage during play allows children to develop and test their verbal skills. Children experiment with language by telling jokes and riddles, reciting chants and poems, and making up words. As children use language during play, they create meaning for themselves concerning the nature of language and communication (Frost, 1992). Additionally, playing with language develops children's phonological awareness by allowing for experimentation with the sounds of words. Children learn that sounds can be manipulated as they rhyme words and create nonsense words (Johnson, Christie, & Wardle, 2005).

A more complicated form of play, games with rules, also requires children to expand their language skills. Once the egocentrism of earlier childhood diminishes, children can become more proficient at working together to negotiate the rules of games (Van Hoorn et al., 2003). Games with rules provide practice in cooperation, as well as opportunities to build language skills, as children create new games or discuss rules of known games.


Girls and Boys Engaging in Physical Activity During Play

Research indicates gender differences in physical activity during play. Studies have noted that boys, from infancy through adolescence, tend to participate in more physically active play than do girls (Campbell & Eaton, 1999; Frost, 1992; Lindsey & Colwell, 2003). For example, Lindsey and Colwell (2003) observed young children and found that boys playing with one other child engage in more physical play than girls playing with one other child. Additionally, a study by Sarkin, McKenzie, and Sallis (1997) compared gender differences in play levels of 5th-graders during physical education classes and recess. They found no significant differences between the boys' and the girls' activity levels during physical education classes. However, during recess times, boys more often played games requiring higher levels of physical activity than did girls. Girls played less strenuous games or held conversations as they walked around the playground. These results suggested that during times of unstructured activity, such as recess, boys tend to choose more active play than girls do.

Likewise, other researchers also concluded that the physical play of girls and boys often differs. Boys and girls tend to divide into gendered groups during outdoor play, and they often choose different types of activities (Thorne, 1993). Studies suggest that boys engage in play that involves more physical activity (Boyle, Marshall, & Robeson, 2003), more competition (Lever, 1978), and more space (Martin & Fabes, 2001) than do girls. Pellegrini and Smith (1993) suggested that boys tend to prefer playing outdoors, due to the need for open space to participate in their active games. One type of active play in which boys tend to engage in more frequently than girls is rough and tumble play (Martin & Fabes, 2001; Pellegrini, 1989; Thorne, 1993). Rough and tumble play involves such activities as grabbing and wrestling and may be a socially acceptable way for boys to physically demonstrate their feelings of friendship (Reed, 2000).

Overall Active Play and Physical Development in Children

The human body needs movement to stay healthy and well. Findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2005) indicate that the incidence of childhood obesity is increasing. In today's world, many children spend most of their time in sedentary activities that do not enhance physical fitness. Active play encourages movement, thereby helping children's fitness. According to Huettig, Sanborn, DiMarco, Popejoy, and Rich (2004), young children need at least "thirty to sixty minutes of physical activity a day" (p. 54). Physical advantages that children gain from active play are increased motor control and flexibility (Brewer, 2001). Furthermore, with the added body control that develops as they play, children often become more competent in their skills and gain the self-confidence to play games with peers (Wortham, 2002).

Physical movement is necessary for the growth and development of the mind as well as the body. The brain needs movement in order to function properly (Gurian, 2001). Although indoor play encourages creativity and socialization, it provides only a limited amount of space for the type of physical movement children need each day. Time in outdoor play encourages physical activity, which, in turn, increases children's physical fitness. Consequently, outdoor recess periods provide the time and space for children to engage in the physically vigorous active play that is limited indoors (Sutterby & Frost, 2002).


Understanding more about how play benefits the social, language, and physical development of children can help teachers as they create learning environments; however, more research is needed to gain a clearer picture of how play enhances children's learning. For example, studies examining the influence of recess on classroom behaviors, such as concentration and amount of work produced, have yielded conflicting results (Jarrett et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Davis, 1993). Therefore, more work is necessary to determine how unstructured play correlates with behavior as well as academic achievement. Additionally, more research needs to be conducted about social interventions during play. Children who have been targeted as requiring assistance in developing positive social behaviors may have more difficulty during times of unstructured activity (Blatchford, 1998). Research to determine how to best assist these children, particularly during recess periods, is needed.

Finally, some researchers have included such variables as race and gender within the framework of their study of play; however, less often has the researcher's main purpose been to examine the educational implications based on the different ways girls and boys play. This aspect of play needs further examination if educators are to gain a better understanding of how to best structure learning environments for both genders.


Knowing the research about how children play and what they learn as they play can help educators and parents make sound decisions about how to provide appropriate play opportunities. To create learning environments in which children can thrive, adults must observe children's needs and try to accommodate those needs. The following are some suggestions for educators and parents.

* Importance of Observations of Play Experiences: Teachers can use playtimes to observe and assess children's social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Observing children's play can provide teachers with information about how to create appropriate learning environments. In some settings, recess may be a prime time to do this.

* Girls' Play: Girls have been found to engage in more sedentary, language-oriented activities during recess play than boys. Although this type of activity is important, girls also need to be encouraged to be physically active. While many boys may participate in physical movement through rough and tumble play, educators may need to help girls create activities in which they become more active. Providing areas and equipment for active play is the first step; additionally, ensuring that girls have the opportunity to engage in this type of physical play is necessary.

* Boys' Play: Rough and tumble play may provide an outlet for boys' physical social emotional and verbal expression. Schools where all physical contact during play has been banned may need to consider how to reduce aggressive behaviors while allowing for this type of physical contact between boys. Recess monitors may need to be trained to recognize differences between acts of aggression and rough and tumble play. Additionally, the exploration of language that gifts enjoy during play may need to be encouraged for boys by creating play environments that support language development. For example, teachers can lead boys in discussing their play activities.

* Accommodations for Differences: Children have various interests and styles of play; therefore, schools can provide a variety of play materials and equipment to accommodate the differences. Additionally, an assortment of resources can encourage children to expand and extend their play. Children with special needs should be considered in this process.

* Parental Awareness: Parents may be concerned that their young children are "only playing" at school. During Open House, at PTA meetings, and through newsletters, educators can make parents aware of growth and development that takes place as children play, both in classrooms and at recess. It is necessary to make adults aware that natural outdoor play environments are important for gifts and boys and that these areas do not always require equipment. Rustic, wooded settings can provide children with many opportunities for creative movement, imaginative growth, and cognitive learning as they participate in such activities as nature walks with adult supervision.

* Cooperative Activities: Although research indicates that girls tend to enjoy cooperative activities while boys pursue competitive games, children need to learn about both cooperation and competition. Teachers can incorporate each type of activity into classroom lessons.


While some adults dismiss play as mere fun, much growth and development occurs during playtimes. As children play, they gain knowledge of the world and an understanding of their place in it. Although play may differ generally for girls and boys, it offers both genders opportunities to test and refine their developing social, language, and physical skills, which leads not only to academic achievement but also to a lifetime of success. Thus, play does benefit children.


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Jeanetta G. Riley is Assistant Professor, Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education, Murray State University. Rose B. Jones is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education/Literacy, The University of Southern Mississippi.
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Title Annotation:review of research
Author:Riley, Jeanetta G.; Jones, Rose B.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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