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Nurseries urged to tackle gender gap by harnessing 'energy of boys' instead of trying to contain it

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Nurseries need to harness the ‘amazing energy of boys’ instead of trying to contain it, in order to stem the gender gap in development that begins in the early years.

By the age of five, there is already a gap in terms of development with boys lagging behind girls. Earlier this year, the Read on Get on campaign published a report revealing that boys are entering Reception class up to 15 months behind their female peers in language and communication skills.

Gareth Jenkins, director of UK poverty at Save the Children, which is involved in the campaign, called for urgent investment to help improve boys’ language development by boosting the skills of early years staff and ensuring every nursery is led by an early years teacher.

Currently, girls outperform boys at every level of education from Key Stage 1 up to higher education, with boys four times more likely to be excluded from school than girls.

Boys learn in different ways to girls

Janice Savage who wrote the book ‘Brave Boys’ for the National Day Nurseries Association feels it is important that nurseries are aware that ‘boys and girls are different and prefer to learn in different ways’.

She is concerned that nurseries may not be ‘meeting the different ways in which boys learn as readily as we meet the girls’.

In the book she says: ‘As practitioners working with boys you will recognise those that fidget, those who don’t appear to listen or pay attention and those that are full of that ‘boy energy’ this amazing energy that is something early years practitioners may feel they need to contain! But containing this may be part of the problem rather than the solution.’

Young boys growing up in feminised environment

Only two per cent of the early years workforce in the UK is male and 25 per cent of primary schools have no male staff.

This means that young boys are growing up in a highly feminised environment and ‘Brave Boys’ asks if, in this female-dominated profession, practitioners are recognising and responding to the boys interests and learning styles as readily as they respond to girls?’

David Wright, who runs Paint Pots Nurseries in Southampton, has found that sometimes nurseries can have a ‘female’ décor just by the nature of them being staffed by women. This means that “the colour, texture, layout and space usage of an area defines its gender” and the type of play that goes on there.

Ms Savage is quick to emphasise that in ‘Brave Boys she is not stereotyping saying ‘when we talk about boys we are not saying all boys. We all know boys that are really sensitive, good speakers/ communicators and that are empathetic for example and we also know girls who enjoy running around and playing superheroes so please bear this in mind’.

Essential biological differences

The book points out that there are essential biological differences between boys and girls which change the way they learn.

One of these is that the Hippocampus (the area of the brain that supports memory) is slower to develop in boys than in girls and therefore boys need reminding more often and won’t be able to retain a lot of instructions at once.

Similarly the corpus callosum (the super highway which links the two halves of the brain) is smaller in boys and carries fewer connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This is why boys may find it difficult to do two things at once.

‘Brave Boys’ claims that consequently pressure on boys to do too many things at once will lead to the production of cortisol and adrenalin (stress hormones) resulting in frustration and anger and behaviour management issues.

It also highlights the fact that boys have more dopamine in their blood streams - a chemical that increases risk taking and experimentation behaviours.

Another important point to bear in mind for nursery practitioners of children aged four, is that between the ages of four and five, boys experience a testosterone rush which causes their play to become more physical and competitive.

She quotes Steve Biddulph, who wrote ‘Raising Boys’ who said that during this age ‘the rush of testosterone released is 20 times higher than they will have at any other point in their lives’.

Keep them physically active

‘Brave Boys’ claims that the key to engaging boys is to keep them physically active.

It urges nurseries to think about the outdoor play it offers, stating ‘they need time and space to move around and burn off their energy throughout the day. As movement is so important for boys they thrive in the outdoor environment - have you ever witnessed that scrum to the doors when outdoor play is mentioned?’

Understanding that boys will develop language later than girls and will also develop their fine motor skills later, is vital in enabling nurseries to support boys within the early years, according to the NDNA publication.

Literacy is one of the areas where there is the biggest development gap between girls and boys with the gap widening as they grow older.

‘Brave Boys’ recommends a whole host of ways to engage boys. These include:

• Make it physically active and set it in a problem solving environment

• Integrate outdoor activities into literacy

• Do activities that link to area of interest such as sport or superheroes

• Plenty of mark making media (both numeracy and literacy based) specifically in outdoor areas – take it to their play

• Use arms and legs to make letter shapes - physicality

• Use clay to make number and letter shapes

• Limit use of A4 paper – use of technology to support literacy, however be aware of the use of too much technology

• Act out stories

Many boys enjoy superhero play and weapon play and NDNA recommends that nurseries adopt a unified approach to this and agree a policy on it as ignoring it won’t support children. To have your say on superhero play in nurseries, go to

Other tips when working with boys are to:

• Walk with boys and talk to them as they prefer to be walking and communicating as they find it difficult to separate communication and movement

• More likely to remember if time is given to practise new skills in play

• Remember that through their behaviour they are communicating to you! Let’s rethink how we view their behaviour!

• Brain breaks – through physical activity

Most importantly of all – it is crucial that early years practitioners remember that boys are not less able than girls, they just learn in a different way and they need to tap into this to ensure they harness their energy rather than contain it as the way they work with boys will affect their whole development in years to come.

‘Brave Boys’ can be bought from the National Day Nurseries Association at

click here for more details or to contact National Day Nurseries Association


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Samantha Farrier

Samantha Farrier

28 Sep 2015 7:09 PM

Steve Biddulphs claim about a testosterone surge in boys at the age of four has been widely questioned as there is no scientific evidence that has been found to support this claim. However, I found the information about the differences in brain development between boys and girls really interesting and useful. I will be using this to inform my practice and develop strategies for working with children that acknowledge the differences that they might be experiencing in the way they process information. Thank you.