I am going to attempt to offer a glimpse into the mind of a 2, 3, 4, and 5 year old boy, what they see, what they hear, what they actively seek in their peers and adults. I will also offer a few assumptions that are often linked to boy’s behaviour that may not be completely accurate, and how to overcome those assumptions successfully.
Stop directing boys outdoors
Imagine you are a young boy, excited about starting the day with a bang. Hanging out with your best friends that you haven't seen since....yesterday. Your mum or your dad, agitated because you woke them up at 5 in the morning due to how excited you were to unleash you unlimited energy at your favourite place in the world (the centre) rush with you in hand into the centre and to the reception area. You are literally jumping out of your shoes ready to rip into something creative, maybe turn an empty box into a race car or construct an architectural masterpiece out of ice block sticks. You give your mum or dad a kiss, say good bye, watch them leave out of the window, turn around expecting to see some brilliant open materials and environment and you are meet with....
So beautiful, well organized, aesthetically amazing and yet all you want to do is make a mountain out of all those cushions and perform aerial wrestling moves onto it over and over and over again!
Often inside environments are organized/set up in a way that offers an impeccable impression to parents. What is not often factored into the inside environment is whether or not it has all the bells and whistles that will make it appealing for boys to engage with. Generally there is a block corner with the generic wooden blocks and some natural resources, a train track, a few trains, and one of those rectangular road maps.
Literacy and numeracy areas, art areas, natural areas, manipulative play areas are functional disasters for boys, often created with the traditional mindset of 'boys are more interested in outdoor play, girls take advantage more of inside spaces.' Though if we put more time into focusing on creating functional areas of play in our inside environments that would invite boys to engage meaningfully in them, would we see a shift in the numbers of boys seen inside?
Boys don't like playing with statues
It is becoming far too common place that teachers consider their roles to be ones of disengagement, of inactive observing and 'letting children learn independently.' For boys, this is the polar opposite of what they are looking for. They aren't looking for statues, they don't want supervisors, they want to be engaged and responded to. Again look at the world through the eyes of a preschooler or toddler, especially a boy. He makes an amazing discovery in the garden, having been searching for what seems like hours (but only really 4 minutes) he's uncovered the fattest slug he's ever seen. He wants to share his accomplishment with someone, to discuss his persistence, to create a plan for what he's going to do with the slug next.....who's he going to tell?
Not that teacher! Disinterest written all over her face, unaccepting and generally no fun. Boys need to feel as though people, particularly adults are invested in their play and want to play alongside them. There is a reason that wherever there is a teacher sitting and engaged in play that children (particularly boys) seem to swarm to them like bees to honey. It's because they crave that human connection, the need to share their accomplishments and discoveries with someone, anyone who might be interested....who LOOKS interested. Someone kind of like this
So stop being statues, start engaging and sharing in the accomplishments of the boys who genuinely want you to be present and interested in what they are playing, and the discoveries they are making.
Boys need male role models
An assumption or misconception that has been used recently to justify more teachers who are men in early childhood, and completely discredits female teachers, single mothers, and lesbians couples who are successfully raising emotionally, socially, and physically capable children around the world. There is no evidence currently to suggest that children (even boys) require male role models in order to become 'normal' and functioning adults, or at least none that I have seen. In fact there have been numerous studies and articles written that conclude children have no adverse effects as a result of being raised by gay, lesbian, or transgender couples - fancy that. What boys need are teachers that are genuinely engaged, completely interested in what those boys are playing, and available should those boys need them. Ladies, don't be discouraged by the popular opinion that men somehow add something 'extra' to a learning environment - it's not true. Though I would advise anyone who really wants to support boys becoming engaged in learning to expect to get messy, get tired, get physical, and get a spare change of clothes!
Consistency is key
No kidding right?! This is probably the most overused and underutilized phrase in early childhood. We all say it; we all chant it in our staff meetings. Our centre managers/leaders have it permanently added to our daily prep talks with our teachers and yet, most teams have the hardest time making sure it happens. Why is that? Why is consistency so impossibly hard for teams to deliver and yet seems to be the easiest thing to accomplish?
The key is actually communication, not consistency. We may have umpteen staff meetings about how important consistency in practice is but at the end of the day it is the teachers and adults communicating those consistent practices with each other on a daily basis that will truly have that impact. We can create all the treaties, all of the pacts, the oaths, and mantras as we want but if we aren't communicating those to each other often then the treaties we make and the strategies
we agree to will most certainly be forgotten and will fade as quickly as they were so excitedly developed. Communicate with each other as much as possible, there is no harm in pulling your colleagues up on things if they are straying away from strategies you agree to.
Boys need boundaries
Another statement popularized by early childhood discourse. This though is completely accurate. Boys do need boundaries but they need sensible boundaries. If there weren't any boundaries, how would they push them? Though there is a difference between boundaries and destroying the ability for boys to enjoy their play:
John is running around having made a fairly crude gun at the carpentry table, 'bang bang, you're dead,' He yells as he fires invisible bullets at every child he runs past. His pleasure is immense, his sense of accomplishment is definite and as it should be, he made something for himself, something he could use in his play! One of the teachers outside notices John running around with the gun and immediately her death stare targets John who by now has lost interest in shooting people and has holstered his gun in the waistband of his shorts. The teacher races over, determined to make an example of John. She walks up behind John, snatches the gun away from him and sharply condemns 'Guns are not allowed here, you are not allowed to make guns John! Go and find something else to do.'
John is running around having made a fairly crude gun at the carpentry table, 'bang bang, you're dead,' He yells as he fires invisible bullets at every child he runs past. His pleasure is immense, his sense of accomplishment is definite and as it should be, he made something for himself, something he could use in his play! One of the teachers outside notices John running around with the gun and isn't too keen on him indiscriminately pretend killing everyone. She notices that he has since stopped and has holstered his weapon. She slowly makes her way to where he's now playing in the sandpit; she approaches him from the front and crouches down so that she can speak to him on his level, 'John. I think it's cool that you were able to make something special at the carpentry table. I noticed a few of the children you were shooting weren't too impressed with it. If you're going to keep using your gun, you need to make sure you are shooting people that don't mind you shooting them or stick to shooting those invisible monsters. Does that sound like a good plan?'
Having given John the opportunity to agree with the plan, he is then more likely to comply instead of being resentful that his creation has been taken from him and as Pennie Brownlee so accurately puts it, he feels the need to continue with the play in a secretive and deceitful way.
Stop teaching them
For some reason it seems appropriate in most situations for teachers to single out one particular boy in each centre to rote teach the names of dinosaurs to, or the different constellations, or the periodic table. Boys are more than tools for delivering subject knowledge to, and rather obscure subjects at times too! Ever consider why boys find it so easy to remember those types of things? Some people refer to it as a sense of wonder. It is my view that boys are born with a natural sense of wonder, dreamers with amazing ambition, tremendous drive, and a need to be on the move both physically and cognitively. They are able to solve pretty impressive problems if they have the opportunity to use their hands to work the problem out. So connect the two. I guarantee that if you are able to connect their often complex problem solving skills with their innate desire to keep their hands occupied, you will have busy, engaged, inspired boys on your hands. Open ended materials and environments become important for this. Boxes, glue guns, wood, sticks, driftwood, rocks, nails, hammers, pencils, paint - combine all of that and everything else you can think of and you will eliminate any issues you have in your centre with boys exhibiting 'undesirable' or aggressive behaviour. Get their minds working through giving them resources and materials with undetermined outcomes and you won't ever have to concern yourselves with creating plans for positively guiding behaviour as we often tend to see with boys who have a lack of engagement with their environment.
Boys are complex and multi-faceted
As I have written previously about emotional intelligence and well-being, boys need all aspects of their 'person' maintained and responded to. They need to be hugged, they need to be affirmed, and they needed to be able to take risks without limits and rules constantly barreled down onto them. They need to explore, they need to get wet without the nuisance of having to wear a cumbersome apron. Boys need to have their opinions validated, they need to be rough, they need to be tough, and they especially need teachers to actually look as though they're remotely interested. Boys need consistency, they need rules, and they need their particular way of learning reflected in the physical environment both inside and out. Boys don't want teachers, they want comrades, they want people who are invested in them and who genuinely want to see them succeed as individuals and human beings. Functional environments, responsive teaching practices, and nonstop wall to wall fun and enjoyment will ensure you have boys meaningful engaged in their learning environment and will set them up for more adventure and discoveries later on in life.