Friday, 15 June 2012

Magical, Mystical, Moving ...... Boys!!!

A few months ago a very good friend, Alistair Bryce-Clegg of ABC Does, and I decided to write a simultaneous blog on a subject that is very close to both our hearts - BOYS! Life got in the way and it is only now that we have managed to coordinate our diaries and publish our blogs! We do not know what the other has written and I am excited to find out what I will learn in Alistair's blog

I first met Alistair when we were both presenting keynote speeches at a conference and during Alistair's speech we had to take our shoes off, write holding a pencil with our toes, we had to build a den (cubbie) and then he poured water on us to see if it was waterproof! He made quite an impression!!! We met up at other venues where we were both presenting and then found that we were both working on separate projects in Liverpool. Alistair is an Early Years Education consultant and his formal biography reads: "Alistair enjoyed a successful 10 year career as the Head Teacher of three-form entry Infant School and Early Years Unit in Cheshire. Alongside his headship he established a successful consultancy career specialising in the education of children in the Early Years."  For a more interesting insight into who he actually is visit his not boring biography


"It is, in fact, nothing short a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom." Albert Einstein 

Although Albert Einstein was referring to 'curiosity of inquiry' in the above quote - he could also be referring to children who need the motivational opportunities and then the freedom to explore these to thrive and develop.

What is it about our boys? Why do so many parents, teachers and educators find them a challenge to work with? There is an ongoing debate about the influences of nature versus nurture in shaping the behaviour of the boys and girls we work with. I feel there are a number of other influences we should also consider such as culture and the life experiences that these children have been exposed to. It starts right from birth, t-shirts for boys have the slogan "Here comes Trouble!" while little girls have "Little Princess". Girls tend to be socially more responsive from a very early age, they smile at a face while boys might not make that distinction and will smile at a face and a toy!

From an early age David would choose to 'drive' the tractor
I have always been an advocate for boys - maybe because I grew up with 3 brothers and I also have 3 amazing sons! I love their honesty, their mischievous nature, their energy and vibrancy. Consulting with kinaesthetic children including boys I realise that they thrive in the outdoor environment. Why is the outdoors different? Why do we insist that children need to be indoors, sitting at a desk to learn? Why do we feel that they need to sit still for long periods of time to listen? Maybe we should look at ourselves and decide if our expectations of boys are reasonable or are we setting our little boys up to fail from an early age? Dr Ferre Lavers feels that for anybody to achieve THEIR full potential they need to have high levels of well-being and involvement. Are our boys happy in a formal classroom situation? Are they fully engaged in the opportunities on offer? If not, they are unlikely to reach their true potential.

Fully engaged in a motivational sorting and matching opportunity. Photo Ronel Boshoff Bakker, South Africa

During a Mindstretchers Action Research project in Liverpool, United Kingdom we looked specifically at Boys and tracked 3 boys in 20 schools over the 9 month period using the Leuven scales of Well being and Involvement. By introducing a child centred consultative planning approach using Claire Warden’s Talking and Thinking Floorbooks™ methodology we introduced opportunities for children to explore what challenges, interests and motivates them, increased natural resources in the classrooms and increased risky opportunities including the introduction of real tools and fires. At the end of the project we were able to demonstrate an increase in the boys’ levels of wellbeing and involvement! What meant even more to me was how the perception of the Teachers changed - top four adjectives to describe boys went from “energetic, fun-loving, boisterous and noisy” to “energetic, fun-loving, caring and sensitive”!

Construction - 3D transient art, light and shadow, science, maths

One of the major concerns regularly raised is connected to boys’ education! The Australian Government has managed a number of research projects relevant to this and this as well as public debate have identified a number of key issues which are very similar to findings in the United Kingdom:
  • Schooling is not a positive experience to many boys.
  • Boys are less engaged and  less motivated in their schooling
  • Behavioural issues are more likely to be associated with boys
  • Depression and suicide is more prevalent in boys
  • Boys are less likely to stay at school
  • Fewer boys than girls are achieving  the national literacy benchmarks
  • The gap between boys’ and girls’ academic achievements has increased 
Large construction opportunity in the classroom, not seat based! Thank you to Cornish College, Melbourne
At the recent EYEC conference in Sydney I spoke about "Nurturing our Boys" and had a number of delegates come up to me afterwards admitting that they need to change the way they work with young boys. One young man shared that he had hated school and that in all his school years he only had one teacher he considered a great teacher - a male teacher! In an ideal world 50% of Teachers would be male but the sad fact is that there are very few male Educators especially in early years. There are however many excellent female Educators – we as female Teachers and Educators cannot be males but we can research and understand what boys need so that we are then better able to support them appropriately. We could invite male role models into our environment to model behaviour – ask the policeman or the janitor to read a story, a sportsman to show how he uses maths in his sport etc.

Classroom in a tipi, thanks to John Marsden, Candlebark School, Melbourne.
Boys have two sensitive periods during their development, one at about 4 -5 years and then again at puberty. We tend to recognise and excuse the behaviour of our teenagers but what about those younger children? This is when there is a massive surge of testosterone coursing through their bodies which is linked to muscle development, violence and social dominance. It is difficult to keep still... why then is this the age we often expect children to start seat based formal schooling? I would say this is a recipe for disaster for those who are trying to cope with their 'new' bodies. There is certainly a place for ‘buying time’ by allowing kinaesthetic children to start formal seat based schooling closer to the age of 6. We should recognise that children can learn as well if not better if they are allowed to move as it takes more muscles to sit still than it does to keep moving. A child sitting still on a mat is not necessarily learning any better than the child moving, in fact I would even say that the child sitting still may be so busy trying to control his body that he is unable to listen!

Scientific exploration - a REAL experience. Photo Ronel Boshoff Bakker, South Africa
Get active! Boys need to move and physically 'feel' the learning opportunity. They also need to know why they are doing something, if they can't see the point they will not want to do it so offer contextual learning opportunities. Most boys feel that most of what they have to do at school is pointless including lots of writing or copying from the board. Boys are competitive so offer opportunities that encourage healthy competition and they have a great sense of fun and humour so use this to motivate them.

Boys behaviour is often seen as being aggressive. What is interesting is that we interpret play behaviours differently. I asked male and female Teachers to write observations of children's play, the males all referred to rough and tumble play while the majority of females recorded aggressive play. Boys are programmed to protect their territory, to be the hunter gatherer so it is no wonder that they have a natural instinct to make and use guns to protect their space or to go 'hunting'. As females we often over react to this urge instead of seeing it as a role play opportunity and sensitively supporting boys to explore their instinct. Fairness and the rights of other children should be recognised. Making and using bows and arrows for example takes a lot of skill and is a motivational learning opportunity. Boys should not be made to feel 'bad' for having this urge - many families also have friends or relatives in the armed forces or game hunters - it is not the weapon that is bad but how it is used.

Stuart climbing trees demonstrating his skills
Children learn best after exercise - we sometimes talk about letting them run off steam but it is more than that. Brain gym has become popular and there is a place for this but it should not replace 'proper' active physical play such as running, jumping and climbing. What saddens me is that very often children who have not completed their work, who are struggling to keep up with the class are held back in the classroom to do more work instead of having their break! These are the children that should be allowed to have the physical opportunities outside to allow them to do their ‘work’ better. When I was taking a group of educators to Denmark for a study visit the senior lecturer commented on the fact that children's playtime was being reduced to allow more time for subjects such as Maths and Language.....he compared it to making children take more of the same medicine that didn't work in the first place!
Martin at 3 seeking the challenge of sliding down a waterfall
Boys need challenge and risk. They search for these opportunities and will use equipment inappropriately if they are not provided with appropriate opportunities and resources. I have seen children (often boys) climbing up walls or railings in a shopping mall. In settings where the outdoor equipment is not appropriate for their age and stage of development they  will find resources to create bridges or add height which is then often less safe that providing them with appropriate equipment. This extends to inside the classroom too – many children feel that school is boring and offers them no challenge....we often interpret this as being a behavioural issue.

Teenage boys seeking risk and challenge
Boys tend to not be great listeners so ensure that the core message is concise and direct. Get to the point! I have heard a number of husbands say that to their wives too! Boys are more likely to be told off than girls – not because they are ‘naughtier’ but because they are louder and get caught more often! Offer praise but make sure it is not empty praise but well deserved praise.

Boys’ brains mature in a different sequence to girls and they develop concepts of movement and space first so an environment that allows these concepts to become concrete is vital. The best place for boys to learn is the outdoors! There are no walls to bounce off, plenty of opportunity to be active, to take part in large scale construction and role play opportunities. 

The outdoor classroom, thanks to John Marsden, Candlebark School, Melbourne.

 To allow all our children to succeed we need to ensure that we consult with them and offer them opportunities that motivate and stimulate each and every child in our care. Only by doing this will our children have high levels of well-being , be engaged in the opportunities on offer and be able to reach their full potential whatever that potential is.


"Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process...the independent scientist in the child disappears." John Holt 

Footnote: Please note  that although I refer to boys generally many of the observations would also apply to girls who are kinaesthetic learners and some might not apply to all boys.

For more information
West, P. (2002) What is the Matter with Boys? Choice Books, Sydney.
Warden, C. (2006) Talking and Thinking Floorbooks™
Ros Bayley, Sally Featherstone. (2010) Cleverness of Boys

I also acknowledge the work of
Gary Wilson, freelance consultant, Huddersfield, York, UK
Joseph Tobin, Professor of Early Childhood Education, Arizona State University
Dr Jeremy Swinson, Liverpool John Moores University