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


  1. What a fabulous article- thank you. A very important topic.

    Something that has always stayed with me from my own investigations into boys' needs (I have a son) is that boys are anatomically different from girls as well. Expecting them to sit for hours on hard chairs, when they have considerably less buttock padding than girls, is a recipe for discomfort and disruption. Get those boys up and moving!

    1. Thanks AA, I suppose I had not really thought of that aspect as I just feel they need to be allowed to move. I was trying to think if there are ever occasions when we as adults are not allowed to get up or move around when we feel the need to.

  2. Excellent! And I'm sure Alistair will post something of equal impact. You raise a very salient point that I too brought up in my post on this very subject. While getting more male teacchers would help with all children, not just the boys, the gender of the teacher should be of relatively little significance. A teacher who listens to the child and attends to their needs, wants and desires will get that same postive vibe back in spades. I just love the photo of the boys climbing on the table. Unfortunately I would be in so much trouble if the children did that in my room, but what does happen is thy all like to get down low. Whether it's taking on the role of an animal, moving to music, or just general play. Getting the wholee body moving while inside provides so much stimuli for the brain who could possibly object??????

    1. Thank you, what is sad is that so many people do object and expect children to sit still for long periods ....they get to play outside in the school yard for 30 minutes a day ....

  3. Thankyou for your rich insights! I continue to be inspired from hearing you in person and reading your blog.

    1. Thank you, I feel that so often the boys are misunderstood and they have so much to give too.

  4. I love this blog a lot.Myself and a colleague developed some workshop material and resources for the school aged sector in NZ that we called "Boylingual" and it is all about the awesomeness of boys, their specific traits, their development pathway, positive ways of relating to them off the "time out" chair (where we often found them sitting) when visiting programmes...,activities, environments,experiences that truly are tuned into boys and that they really is essential for the growing of boys to men that we get this right..their does need to be a paradigm shift for many.

    1. Thank you for your positive comments - I am so sad that children still have to sit on a "time out" chair....I thought this went out ages ago? I can see that at times there needs to be a strategy to allow children to reflect and think but this does not need to be a formal chair. As you also mentioned, there are much better strategies to motivate the boys and allow them the opportunities to be active in doing so. My philosophy is that if a child is deemed to be misbehaving we very often have to look at ourselves, what are we not offering that child!

  5. I agree I think boys are mis-understood! Many normal behaviors are kabooshed! I think the same thing happens to girls in a different way. Parents/caregivers/educators need to be more sensitive to individual needs of children. I'm not sure I can quite get on bored with AA assesment that girls have more padding... maybe once puberty hits... but anyway, no child should be expected to sit for long periods of time. Children should be expected to do only what is biologically correct for them!

    1. Thank you very much, we do need to listen and respond to the needs of all children both boys and girls and if we did that we wouldn't have issues with the boys either!

  6. This is a great, and important article! I am a father of one boy (age 7) and one girl (age 2) and also a teacher and even though I was a rare boy who, for the most part, enjoyed school and excelled, I am very aware as a teacher about how hard it is for most boys to sit through it. I'm actually working on a novel that will have a small city with an educational system that is more outdoors-based as well as more driven by the students (picking their own curriculum). So I love finding blogs like this one where I can learn some more ideas. Thanks for the great input!


    1. Thank you Bryan, I would be most interested in your novel. I believe all children should have a lot of access to the outdoor environment and especially kinaesthetic learners thrive in the outdoors - that is also where nature/bush or forest schools play an important role. Also if children are consulted they will tell or show you what interests them and this can then be used as the teaching/learning tool.

  7. WOW such a great article. thankyou.
    i have two boys 4yrs and 2yrs and both are born in March and we will be holding them back on going to school until they are nearly 6 - so it was fantastic to see our views supported on this. I wish schools really did think about these sort of matters and even mroe so now with all the technology out there and the fact that our generation as parents are regarded in a broad sense as being helicopter parents....
    thanks again.

  8. Dear Rachel
    I know you won't regret allowing your boys the extra time to develop their strengths. I also allowed my boys to go to school at a later stage and instead of coping they were able to shine! The only challenge was getting schools to support them at a higher level so that they did not become bored. It also carries forward into later years - when they have to choose their subjects, go to university etc....they are just that bit more mature. I know they will thank you one day!

  9. Lovely blog post with fab photos. I grew up in a very matriarchal family - my mum lost her dad when she was just 7 years and my grandmother was left with 6 children under the age of 10 to bring up. Her two brothers were sent to boarding school so she hardly got to know them. Then she had 4 girls of her own... so it's been really funny to see that she only has grandsons! And I now live in a male household where even the pets are male! Sigh!

    1. I have only now discovered your comment and apologise for not responding! You certainly are outnumbered - it fascinates me how different all female households can be compared to all male ones. I am sure that a lot of my understanding boys came from having 3 brothers - and we were very close in age so just had to get on with it! I am the oldest of 5 and when I was 4 my mum had 4 children! I do love working with boys........

  10. Sandra St Jack21 June 2012 at 15:19

    Thank you. There are times as a parent that we doubt our own instincts when we continually bombarded with what is "normal" and how our children "should" behave. I have a VERY lively boy of my own and many lively daycare boys. They are bright and curious and love to touch, push, pull, taste, assert, contruct, destruct. They naturally have a drive to take everything to the limit and then see what happens when they push it beyond. I love to watch it. I find them very readable and in that a great joy to teach or should I say support as they are incredibley active learners all on their own. I love that all children are finally respected and encouraged to learn in a manner that is most viable to them. As Educators our role is to support and supply the necesary tools to allow a child to develop into the best that they can be. The children educate themselves.

    1. Sorry Sandra..I have only just found your and Juliet's responses. I agree with you - as the mature adult it is up to us to adapt to each child's needs! I love the open honesty generally of the boys :-).