Child’s play

Summer observations from the pool.

I’m staying in a condominium with a pool.  The boisterous play by children can make it quite impossible to swim and perhaps even a bit dangerous to try.  But approaching the pool yesterday,  I heard only some childish peeps, and just a few of them.  So I went to look.  Three little girls.  Perhaps they’re in kindergarten.  “You can handle them,” I said encouragingly to myself.  Indeed.

Having experienced a lot recently of the jumping and crashing and throwing boys go in for, I watched amazed and dismayed as the three little girls bobbed up and down with their Barbies and chatted more or less at each other.  It was encouraging to hear one little girl say, “Now you’ve killed my sister.  See, she’s all wet.  She drowned.  Would you please stop doing that.”   I couldn’t tell if the miscreant was another child or another Barbie.

One little girl splashed a bit of water at another.  This was construed as unacceptable hostility; a father got involved and spoke to each separately.  As I left, peace had been restored and the little girls were sitting ever so nicely in the 1ft ultra shallow end, with their Barbies.

Basically, they were in the pool to have tea parties with Barbies.   It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t enjoy something a little more physically challenging.  And it’s tragic to think what they may well be missing out on.

This afternoon I was skimming through articles that “girls, play” was bringing up.  It isn’t just that the play is so highly gendered itself, but the play has such a potential for shaping one’s body in ways that surely does not serve the girls and their future abilities well.

So what are the consequences of girls’ constrained play?   Often indirect ones that go beyond the important health issues, we now know.  For example, boys’ play helps in developing the spatial skills needed in all sorts of maths.  (We have noted before that girls’ disadvantage in spatial cognition can be meliorated.)  While I was thinking about this, I happened across a video too well demonstrating how the boys grow up with mechanical knowledge they love to  use.  Just count the number of guys involved in unscrewing bits of the car.  And, ok, it does  have a favored animal in it:


I have wondered whether there is much a bystander could do in the pool situation, even if one counts as a member of the community.  I thought of buying some balls for them, or even putting up cranky notes in the elevators.  Then this morning I saw a father with a ball.  He threw it to the little girls.  They certainly couldn’t catch it; they hardly had a clue.  So they left;  it hadn’t been fun, it seemed.   Clearly, it would have to be a  long cranky note about engaging girls in something a little challenging.

13 thoughts on “Child’s play

  1. Just to be clear: the kiddies described here are going in for very stereotypical girlish play. Daughters of feminists might do otherwise??

  2. Interesting reflections. I have a friend who plays on a women’s soccer team (or football as we call it here!). She said that all the women on the team begin by being (a) pretty bad at playing, and (b) automatically concerned about people falling over/getting hit by the ball/bumping into one another in a way that footballers should not be – so if one accidentally kicks the ball into someone else, she is immediately compelled to stop playing and say something like, ‘Ooh sorry, are you ok?’. After some practice, people get better at playing, and get over the compulsion to stop playing and express concern every time someone falls over etc.

  3. Is this necessarily a problem? Are there really long-term consequences of not taking part in boisterous play. Should parental duties extend to steering their daughters away from ‘girlie’ play? And why take boy’s play as the model of what is right?

  4. jv, let me clarify. I was concerned with the girls having “something a little more physically challenging,” which is different from recommending the sort of boys’ play that gets me out of the pool altogether.

    From a quick look at the Web of Science, it looks as though a case can be made for active and demanding child’s play affecting both positive health and intelligence in adults. There’s more and more evidence that exercise affects cognitive functioning. We also think that men tend to have a better capacity for spatial imagination than women, That’s significant for all sorts of scientific and engineering careers. But it looks to be environmental. (We have a post here on how women’s spatial imaginings can be improved by playing video games.)

  5. I receive the FP posts in an email. So, I read this post after I read The proposition 8 ruling and gender roles. The juxtaposition is interesting: Although CA might have eliminated legally mandated gender roles, clearly gender roles are still very much a reality, including within marriage. While the legal changes are great, maybe they simply reflect the reality that the system of gender division is strong enough to uphold itself through internalized sexism.

  6. Nice point, Rachel. I’m hoping that it will lead to a realization that there are more way to be than many once thought.

  7. Okay, but surely they play like that sometimes even if only at school. Plus none of this matters from a difference feminist perspective.

  8. JV – I think you can be a difference feminist and still think this matters. As JJ says, there are studies linking men’s superior spatial skills with physical childhood play. People lacking those skills have less choices available to them. If girls lack those skills because of the gendered expectation that they should not engage in such physical play when little, then that’s a concern. Not just a matter of difference between men and women that we can accept and celebrate.

  9. Monkey, thanks. I think the original contrast between boys and girls play may be misleading. The issue isn’t whether girls can be like boys, but rather whether girls play is subverting capacities they do have.

    BTW, Monkey, your story in your first comment is wonderful. I wonder if they shouldn’t tape some of it.

    I think school used to be a help, but I understand that physical ed is taking a hit with budget problems. In my childhood the neighborhood children were out playing games like “Red Rover” on warm evenings, but this seems to be in declined, as children are involved with computers and tv.

  10. But you could push for greater wage equality instead and then there wouldn’t be such severe consequences.

  11. JV – not sure there needs to be either/or. There should be both greater wage equality, AND people shouldn’t have their choices curtailed by the gendered expectations of how they should play as children.

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