How Are Your Boys Doing?

If you do a Google search for ‘effective preschool environments for boys’ or ‘effective early learning environments for boys’ you won’t get much help. Isn’t that interesting… We found nothing that mentioned boys, or at least nothing in the first few pages of results (and who looks further anyway!).

Do you have a great learning environment for boys?

As the leader of your centre, you typically won't have a lot of day-to-day contact with the children. That's your teachers' role and you'll likely be comparatively removed (except when trouble brews!).

But you will concern yourself with, and have a big say in, the overall quality of your physical learning environment. And of course you have a big influence on your centre's attitude towards boys too.

Are both your physical environment, and your culture, beneficial for the boys in your care?

If you do a Google search for 'effective preschool environments for boys' or 'effective early learning environments for boys', you won't get much help. Isn't that interesting? (We found nothing that mentioned boys, or at least nothing in the first few pages of results - and who looks further anyway?!).

There are plenty of links, but none about the learning environment for boys specifically.

After some digging, we came across a series of books by Dr Michael Gurian: The Wonder of BoysThe Minds of Boys, and The Purpose of Boys. The trilogy contains a wealth of information on boys and their development (and even a chapter in The Minds of Boys entitled 'Effective Preschool and Early Learning Environments for Boys').

We also came across an article by Francis Wardle: The Challenge of Boys in Our Early Childhood Programs.

We refer heavily to these two sources for the information in this week's Pivot.

What Is an Effective Physical Environment for Boys?

As a general rule, boys are simply more physical than girls (no argument there!). Experienced teachers know that boys thrive on lots of physical activity, kinaesthetic learning, hands-on learning and plenty of play.

Where you, as the leader, have an influence is in the amount of physical space the boys have to do it in.

The Work Space

Boys need space to move around in:

For a lot of boys, that work space is going to need to be roomier than you might have initially imagined. The young male brain tends toward spatial-mechanical play and learning, so it tends to "use more space" than girls. When confined in smaller spaces boys often get frustrated and "bounce off the walls." In turn, discipline problems ensue. It takes more space to engage the world through the spatial centres of the brain, and males tend to cry out for that space.

To judge how different girls and boys are in the way they use space, you might stand and observe for twenty minutes. Watch who moves around in that space and how much space each child uses. Do this a number of times a day, for at least three days, perhaps keeping a journal. After a few days, you'll have a pretty good anecdotal study. In general, the boys will use more floor space, more wall space, and more table space than the girls.

Noticing this can be a real revelation. Many preschools we've consulted have expanded their physical floor plan once they saw this. Not surprisingly, discipline problems decreased when the amount of physical space increased.

(Michael Gurian - The Minds of Boys)

Boys need room to spread out:

There are other important things to notice about space. For example, within the children's work space there are often tables, and even in the use of tables boys and girls differ. Boys tend to need more room. That spatial male brain likes to spread things out. This is one of the ways that the male brain often learns. It spreads things out or takes things apart, then organises and rebuilds them.

(Michael Gurian - The Minds of Boys)


Boys see better in bright light:

The male and female brains don't experience light in the same way. Although all children benefit from lots of light, boys see better in bright light and thus especially benefit from lots of light in which to work, read, play, and learn. Light can really make a difference in how boys perform - both academically and emotionally. Low light can affect serotonin levels in the brain and also makes learning difficult. Boys are more often likely to 'act out’ under these circumstances, becoming discipline problems.

Ruben Gur, at the University of Pennsylvania's Neural Imaging Unit, has looked at some fascinating science of 'light’ in the male and female brain. […] males are quite vision and light dependent; in fact, vision is the male's best-developed mode of sensing and acquiring information. Girls and the female brain tend to rely more heavily on the other senses. Given the male's dependence on vision, lighting is even more necessary for boys [because they] are trying to learn through the visual cortex.

(Michael Gurian - The Minds of Boys)

What about the 'Culture' of Your Learning Environment?

Everyone agrees that a boy's learning environment should contain books and blocks. Books with lots of pictures; books about things they can take apart and put together; things they can measure and figure out; books about how things work; books about heroes. We also agree that boys need blocks of all sizes so they can exercise their spatial-mechanical brain by creating structures, tearing them down and building them again.

Again, no disagreement there.

So, let's move on to something a little more challenging - something Michael Gurian calls 'aggression nurturance'.

Aggression Nurturance

We began using the term in 2001 in response to an in-home day-care provider who told us about her policy of disallowing all 'karate kicks'.

"I don’t want to promote violence," she said, "so I have a no-hitting, no karate kick policy." When we walked through her day-care, we noticed […] an intense vigilance against any physical displays of aggression.

This kind of vigilance is common throughout the early childhood education community. There is a general need to maintain discipline and curtail injury, as well as a tacitly accepted logic that physical shows of aggression will inherently lead to increased violence among males.

Yet, have you noticed how often boys want to communicate with each other through physical aggression? They kick each other, push each other, knock up against each other, throw a ball at each other. They grin, they wince, they cower, they glower. They are entranced by the aggressions, made sullen at times, often made joyful with the intimacy of physical contact.

In 1996, I coined the term aggression nurturance for this male-male communication, arguing that boys, who often lack the "use your words" methodology for intimacy, nurture themselves and others through aggressive gestures and activities. Given the hormonal and neural makeup of males, it's often the case for boys (and men) that aggressive gestures (which we've called 'karate kicks') are as nurturing as words, as bonding as hugs. These 'karate kicks' build trust and loyalty by exploring weakness and strength in a playful, teasing way. This kind of physical aggression is a safe form of intimacy and bonding between males. There is as much love transferred by two boys pushing each other and laughing as by two girls sitting and talking.

(Michael Gurian - The Minds of Boys)

Read that last sentence again. Does it make sense to you?

Does your centre have what the Francis Wardle article we found calls a 'female culture' that is under-valuing 'aggression nurturance'? Could you change it?

Do you want to change it?

When you notice karate kicks and other physical aggressions, you might also observe how much "aggression nurturance" is going on among the boys - how much of this aggression leads to attachment, bonding, and lasting friendships. You'll see the ways in which boys are communicating and nurturing others and themselves through these karate kicks. Some of the physical aggressiveness is too violent of course; some of it is not appropriate to the small space the children are in; some of it is hurtful. You'll note this kind, but a lot of the aggression is likely to be nonverbal communication of nurturance.

In your role […] you have the power to help nurture male love or leave a great deal of it under-nurtured - shut down - depending on your attitude toward 'karate kicks'.

(Michael Gurian - The Minds of Boys)

And a final word from Michael (when talking about older boys and sport in The Wonder of Boys):

If [boys] do not learn a dance of aggression through some organised activity from [a] culture that loves, nurtures, and trains their aggression in a disciplined dance, they will be more likely to take their loss of this training, their grief, their anger that they have not received it, out on the world around them.

Food For Thought...

As leader, there are things you can influence to benefit boys:

  • You can ensure plenty of workspace
  • You can ensure lots of light
  • You can use an appreciation of 'aggression nurturance' to positively affect your centre culture. 

"There is as much love transferred by two boys pushing each other and laughing as by two girls sitting and talking."

Truly food for thought.

We're sure you'll have plenty to say in the comments below! 🙂


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