Would you allow your boy to play with guns? Should boys (or girls) be allowed to play with guns and swords at preschool? The questions are raised in a new Report from the UK.
Parents’ websites contain a lot of comment, especially from mothers, who worry seeing their child playing with a gun. Parents say their sons bite into a sandwich, which becomes a gun: “Bang, bang, you’re dead”. No mother- or father- wants their son to become a gun-wielding monster who destroys other people’s lives. There is a huge range of difference among boys across socio-economic status, race, and language. It nevertheless appears that boys all over the world often play with guns, and - later in their lives - with computer games in which they aim at being the survivor.  Play with guns seems to be part of growing up for many or most boys. And it’s not something that parents and childcare workers are comfortable with. 

But these games may be useful to get boys learning, a new UK report on the early years of learning suggests.   It says that boys often watch TV and games and act out what they see males in them do. The report says  “Adults can find this type of play particularly challenging and have a natural instinct to stop it”. The Report is called Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements, and comes from the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families. The UK Children’s Minister, Beverley Hughes, called it “ a commonsense approach to the fact that many children, and perhaps particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity”. Her clever  wording encompasses many debates. It will create many more.
The Report says every child is entitled to challenging and enjoyable learning; this must include boys. It says many children do chose gender-specific activities, and each has a personal learning journey. We must trust the richness of children’s ideas, the Report says; not impose our own. Case studies  in the report emphasise exploration, experimentation and “mucking about with things”. Some might see this as the kind of play that males typically do- “messing about in boats” as described in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Many men do enjoy mucking about with cars, computers and boats. Fathers play with kids (especially sons) and it’s typically in a more challenging and competitive way. They nurture (as mothers do) but in characteristically different styles. Some will doubtless reject all this as essentialist thinking of the populist kind: Men are from Mars, and so on.
Efforts to improve boys’ achievement in the UK and Australia have looked principally at behaviour and learning. Without wishing to make gross comparisons between boys and girls, there are worrying trends in behaviour among boys. Oppositional and conduct disorders are twice as common among boys, according to Sebastian Kraemer’s report in the British Medical Journal

Despite many academic articles, a gap between boys and girls’ achievement remains. Among low achievers in the UK, boys outnumber girls by 20%.  A gender gap in achievement between boys and girls has been discussed in Australia since the O’Doherty Report was released in New South Wales in 1994 . Last year the subject rose to prominence in the USA and is still being hotly debated. Some announce there is a boy crisis; others deride such an idea. Unfortunately the result is that we get buried in semantics.
The UK Report says too many boys develop negative images of themselves as learners. Schools want boys to listen and sit still; but boys’ lives are about activity. If we keep making boys sit still and be quiet, they will switch of learning and see themselves as poor learners at school. The issue was summarised when one British boy wrote in an exam, “I will try my hardest, no matter how pointless the task is”. Following boys’ agendas does improve learning, the Report says. Staff should ‘help boys to achieve more rapidly by providing opportunities for learning that engage them’. Centres that followed boys’ interests resulted in ‘sudden and dramatic improvements’ in behaviour as well as listening and speaking skills.
Of course boys are not all the same. But the problem of capturing boys’ interests has been registered in almost all countries surveyed by the OECD . Boys, engagement and bad behaviour all seem to coalesce in many educational discussions; the ‘gender gap’ between boys in performance has been much discussed but not yet closed.

There will be many implications from the Report. For instance, could female staff be too ready to condemn boyish play? And are men more likely to permit it? If there are boy- friendly approaches to learning, and thus teaching, do we have enough men in teaching? Professor Andrew Martin at Oxford University told me that although top quality is the most important thing we need in a good teacher, boys prefer to raise certain issues with a trusted older male, not always a father. And males often tolerate more active and boyish learning, Sebastian Kraemer argues. The difficulty of getting suitable males into teaching has been bewailed around the world, but no workable solution has been found.
Again, is it true that boys and girls learn in characteristically different ways? Or is it just true that there is a range of behaviour across boys and girls? The findings might encourage a move back to single-sex learning, even within a coeducational school.
There are some echoes of the Report in the work done to date by the Federal Government’s Boys Education Lighthouse Schools Program. Among its ten principles for engaging boys appear the following. Flexibility of approach, rather than a standard, teacher-directed activity; practical and hands-on learning; and the use of appropriate male role-models. Like the UK Report, the BELS program wants teachers and caregivers not to enforce stereotypes but to challenge them. The balance among all these principles is difficult to maintain. Some will see the Report as encouraging a too stereotypical view of learning.
Thus there will be continuing debates about boys, and girls learn, and how they should learn. I don’t see the Report as a backward step, necessarily. It is a cautious questioning of caregivers’ understandable worry about the noisy, active, possibly wild ways in which many boys play. It supports those of us who argued that schools should be made more boy-friendly. It might spark a useful debate on what is permissible in the early years and how to channel the restless activity that many boys show, rather than condemn it and turn boys off learning.

*Dr Peter West is a well-known academic who provides workshops on boys’ learning.  His website is www.boyslearning.com.au. He can be reaced by email at p.west@exemail.com.au.


Boys, lack of emotional expression and high activity
By the time a boy is born the pattern seems set. Developmental disorders such as specific reading delay,10 hyperactivity,11 autism and related disorders, clumsiness, stammering, and Tourette's syndrome12occur three to four times more often in boys than in girls, although girls, when they have such a disorder, may be more severely affected.13 Conduct and oppositional disorders are at least twice as common in boys.14 Genetic factors are known to play a part, varying from low heritability in conduct disorder to high in autism,15 but why are they all commoner in boys? None of these conditions is sex linked in the classical sense. But Skuse et al propose that the X chromosome does carry some of the burden of the social and cognitive deficits that are common to many (but not all) of these disorders.16Coeducation has exposed another difference that was less evident (even though paradoxically more pronounced26) in the past: that girls are better than boys at most academic subjects. Results of the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) examination, taken at age 16 in England, have only relatively recently been collected on a nationwide scale, but they show a considerable gap between the sexes in scholastic achievement: 42.8% boys compared with 53.4% girls get grade C or above at GCSE,27 and in lower social classes the gap is even greater.28 Boys mature more slowly than girls and later tend to catch up with girls academically. Disruptive ("boyish") behaviour may be less tolerated in modern schools than it was in the past.29 Males, meanwhile, tend to have superior skills in mathematics and other non-verbal tasks. Even at the age of 2 boys do better than girls at building a bridge with toy bricks.30 In general, males are better at spatial and navigational skills, such as throwing, map reading,31 chess, and architecture, though these are not invariable advantages. Spatial ability, for example, is better in female than male Inuit.32 Yet males everywhere have consistently maintained a superior ability to match figures rotated at different angles.33 Girls have better literary skills and are more aware of and explicit about their feelings, while boys tend to clam up, especially when their emotions are high, and just feel uncomfortable and awkward without knowing why. The much studied defect "alexithymia"lack of an emotional vocabulary is much commoner in boys.34

Kraemer, “The fragile Male”, British Medical Journal, 2000 bmj.com

Messing about in boats

"There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not."

Spoken by Ratty to Mole in Wind in the Willowsby Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)