Tag Archives: nature

Gender Differences: Nature then Nurture

genderNature: boys and girls do develop differently

There are lots of anecdotes about how different boys and girls* are. And, for any point that you are trying to prove about gender differences, you’ll be able to find at least one study that supports it. But, when experts do a meta-analysis of all the studies, these are the main differences that show up consistently:

  • Emotional Development: Boys may get upset and explode more easily, and have a harder time self-soothing. Girls show fear earlier: they’re more likely to startle, and more likely to become cautious when their parents look worried about something.
  • Spatial Learning: boys are better at the ability to turn objects around in their mind to see how they could fit together differently (puzzles), and better at keeping track of moving objects and predicting motion (where the ball will land).
  • Physical Skills: Boys may be more physically active (although girls reach large motor milestones at about the same age). Boys may have shorter attention spans.
  • Language: Girls are better at perceptual speed tasks: identifying matching objects and pattern identification. They pay more attention to the human voice than boys do. Girls also talk earlier.

However, although those differences are observable patterns, the differences from all boys to all girls are small. When we look at individuals, there is just as much variation from one boy to another as there is from any one boy to any one girl.

It is true that girls’ brains develop faster. At birth, a full-term girl is about one week “more mature” than a full-term boy. Girls reach the halfway point of their brain development before 11 years, and their brain is fully mature between 21 and 22 year old. Boys’ halfway point is 15 years, with full brain maturity by 30 years old. Source. This delay can make boys seem “not as bright” or “not as good at academic skills” as girls, but that’s not the case in the long run.

Nurture: Boys and girls are treated differently

So, there are, in fact, slight biological differences. But we as parents reinforce and amplify the differences. We tend to encourage our children to do the things that we expected they would be good at (boys to throw balls, girls to talk) and we don’t challenge them in other areas, because “well, girls are just not as physical, and we all know boys talk later.” Our assumptions “crystallize into… self-fulfilling prophecies.” (Eliot)

  • Emotional Development: Some believe that “girls are more empathic / tuned into people from day one – they are much more likely to establish eye contact.” But others point out that because newborn boys are fussier and harder to soothe (due to those less mature brains), their parents are less likely to establish eye contact, so boys don’t get as much practice at that skill.
  • Emotional Expression: Boys are seen as more likely to be angry and aggressive, but that’s considered normal. Angry girls are told not to be angry. When girls show fear, they receive empathic support. But fearful boys are told not to be scared.  Source.
  • Spatial Learning: Girls are, in fact, slightly less interested in puzzles and building toys. But when we give our boys lots of Legos, and give our girls toy animals, the skills they don’t have the opportunity to practice can turn into a bigger gap in spatial skills which influences learning advanced math later on.
  • Physical: Boys are expected to be more physical and more interested in balls and bikes, so when they show these interests, they are more actively encouraged. Boys are dressed in clothes they can move well in. Girls are dressed in “pretty” clothes, and assumed to be less physically capable. There was a study of 11 month olds. The mothers were asked how steep a slope their child could crawl down. Then the children were tested. Boys and girls did about the same. But the mothers of girls had significantly underestimated what their girls were capable of. Source
  • Language: Parents and teachers see a boy lagging in reading and verbal skills and shrug it off with, “But of course, he’s a boy.” It is true that girls talk younger. At 20 months a girl may know 200 words and a boy may know 30. But in a month he’ll catch up to where she was! She will always have gotten more practice than he has, though, so she will always seem further ahead. Girls may also read younger, which means parents assume they like to read. These girls are more likely to read for pleasure – which builds language skills, putting them further ahead. Meanwhile, the parents may focus on how slow their boy is at learning to read – when he over-hears this, he assumes that reading is not one of the things he’ll ever be good at.

Think about your expectations for the children in your life. What assumptions do you make about their capabilities based on their gender? Where do you “make excuses” for them based on gender… “well, I know that this is harder for boys to learn…”? When guessing which toys and activities they’ll be interested in, how colored are your assumptions by their gender?

Yes, I get that boys and girls can be different. My boy was obsessed with trains as a toddler – my girls never even played with the trains I got for them. My girls carried their stuffed animals everywhere and had a complex understanding of the social relationships of those animals and my son only occasionally plays with his stuffed animals. But I gave all of them an opportunity to interact with a variety of toys. And I tried not to make assumptions about which toys they would like.

Some parents believe that gender differences are set in stone, others see them as more malleable. Media has a big influence on parents’ perceptions of gender stereotypes. Politically conservative sources are more likely to explain gender differences as being based on biology rather than culture, and that means there readers were more comfortable to traditional gender stereotypes as “unavoidable.” Source

As with most aspects of parenting, I think the challenge is for us to:

  • see our children’s strengths (gender based or not) as strengths and give them plenty of free play opportunities to practice them and gain confidence and a sense of mastery
  • see the areas our children are less skilled in as areas for growth not as “unchangeable biological imperatives”. Provide gentle nudges in play-based learning, or more direct instruction to help them learn and grow, without pressuring them with demands for instant success


Over the next few days I will be posting about gender differences. Here are the major sources I used in preparing all these posts:

Pink Brain, Blue Brain. By Lise Eliot

Cognitive Gender Differences by Abigail James.

The Real Difference Between Boys and Girls. By Anita Sethi, PhD.

Boys’ Behavior: Why Boys Behave the Way They Do. By Troy Parrish.

Gender Neutral Parenting on Choosing Therapy

* Caveat: All discussions of gender are more complex than they seem. We know that not all children labelled as “girls” or boys identify that way. Read more about transgender children here: HRC.

Passive Toys = Active Kids

passiveThought for the day, from a workshop based on the principles of RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers.): the more active the toy, the more passive the child.

An active toy that does something entertains – all a child needs to do is press a button and sit back and watch passively. A passive toy that doesn’t do anything engages – a child needs to be active to enjoy it.

Or as Magda Gerber says about her recommended play objects – all passive toys: What do [they] have in common? None do anything. They will only respond when the infant activates them. In other words our active infant manipulates passive objects. In contrast, entertaining kinds of toys, such as mobiles or later on, windup toys, cause a passive infant to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained, and sets the scene for later TV watching.

Active Toys

Active toys also include: LeapPads, stuffed animals or dolls where when you squeeze their hands they sing a song… most things with batteries.

The ultimate in active toys is a touch screen device – I-Phone, tablet, etc. I’ve written before on the benefits and downsides of screen time, but the truly amazing things about these devices is their pacifying effect. My son can do an amazing transformation from Squirmy Whiny Disturbing-the-whole-restaurant Boy to Silent Child in less time than it would take to duck into a phone booth – all I need to do is hand him my Kindle or phone. And in moments he’s thoroughly entertained by a video or app. (Here’s thoughts on how to choose well-designed age appropriate materials.)

But, I think the corollary to the statement of “the more active the toy the more passive the child” should be something like: “the more effectively a toy pacifies the child, the more actively they will protest when you try to take it away.” Silent Child turns into Wild Screaming Misery Lad when I then try to take the Kindle away, or when, god forbid, the battery dies in a public place.

I do still use active toys (including the Kindle) at times, but I also try to balance them with a lot of “passive” toys – a lot of open-ended toys that encourage exploration and engagement. And I try to give him time – plenty of uninterrupted time – to explore them.

Some fabulous open-ended materials for toddlers and preschoolers:

Magda Gerber recommends (in The Best Toys for Babies Don’t Do Anything): balls, scarves, plastic bottle, containers (cups, bowls, baskets in many sizes and shapes). Or check out Geek Dad’s list: sticks, boxes, string, cardboard tubes, and dirt. And, of course, my favorite open-ended toy: nature.

Read more about open-ended toys: Here are a couple posts from Mamas in the Making, which are about toys for the 3 – 6 month old crowd, but most of their thoughts apply through the toddler years: Our Thoughts on Open-Ended Toys and Age Appropriate Toys. Check out this video, or many of the videos on Janet Lansbury’s YouTube channel for examples of babies at play with simple open-ended items.

Have enough toys… but not too many…

It’s easy to get excited about open-ended toys. Don’t go overboard though, filling the house or classroom with stuff…

Both at home and at work, I want to be sure there aren’t too many options for kids to explore. It’s great for kids to have some choices, but too many choices are stressful and overwhelming. When faced with too many choices, instead of engaging with one, kids may run from one to the next, never settling. Or, as someone said at my in-service yesterday: “If your child spends their playtime dumping all the toys out of the bucket, that means there’s too many toys in the bucket. Put at least half of them away for now, and the child will play more with what’s left.” Often, less is more. When we give kids the chance to really engage and explore open-ended toys, it’s amazing what they can come up with.


Just for fun: Check out this blog post on Being the Cool Kids on the Block, which talks about saying yes to your kids’ play ideas (within reasonable limits) and open-ended materials.
photo credit: ianus via photopin cc
photo credit: peterme via photopin

10 Types of Toys


In other posts, I have talked about reasons why it might be OK to own fewer toys, and how to choose the best toys, and shared a link to my handout on choosing toys and activities which build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. I’ll share here some examples of how this plays out in our home with our three-year-old.

(Note: I’ve included Amazon Affiliate links in case you want to buy any of these items, but truly, I’m advocating for NOT buying much stuff!)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We only own about 20 kids’ books – filtered down over 20 years of parenting to the ones that we love the best and want to have in the house at all times. But we go to the library a lot! (Multiple times a week, picking up a big stack of books every time. And we end up reading them all multiple times. My boy loves to be read to, and loves to read to himself.) And we go to story-time at the library every week.

We also have magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which we use all over the house) and duplo letters. Lately, my son has been using the letters and a big drawing of a coconut tree  to re-enact one of his favorite books (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom) over and over again. You can see the picture above…. the drawing is nothing “fancy” – I think his grandparents just pulled some packing paper out of the recycle bin and drew on it with crayons – but it’s kept him entertained for hours, and when he’s done, it’s back to the bin.

We have a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, so he plays lots of ABC games, and watches educational videos (and not so educational videos) about the alphabet.

Our best language tools? His abuela (grandmother) who speaks to him in Spanish. And his Belo (grandpa) who reads to him for hours on end. And they both spend a lot of time practicing writing numbers and letters with him and other hands-on learning games.

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything we have more than one of is a math toy! We can count how many blocks we have, figure out whether we have more trains than balls, and so on.

We have 12 rubber ducks that have appeared in our lives over 20 years of parenting (I don’t think I bought a single one). These are great for bath time math time. We sang “Five Little Ducks went out one day” lots of times – it’s a good way to learn the basics of subtraction – one duck doesn’t come back – now there’s four little ducks…

The only special math tools we have are:

    • a set of Duplo numbers, which we’ve used for counting, number recognition, and a number line – we had a library book called Hopping on the Number Line which led to the game of having toys hop back and forth on the number line as we did the math problems out loud (if froggy starts on 2, and hops 3 spaces, where will he land?),
    • Unifix Cubes, which are a fabulous math teaching tool, though so far all he does with them is sort them into 10 stacks of 10 matching cubes, then lines those up in spectrographic order red-yellow-orange, etc. (My boy is a big fan of order and repetition.)
    • Some numbers we shaped out of pipe cleaners
    • Some old birthday candles – you know the candles shaped like the #1 and the #2 and so on that when you put them on the birthday cake and blow them out 20 seconds later, barely any wax has melted so you keep them instead of throwing them away? My son found those and loves them!
    • A great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

We have a couple of kids’ wooden puzzles and a couple of jigsaw puzzles. We have a big bin of duplos (notice how our letters and numbers listed above do dual duty as part of the Duplo collection?), and wooden train tracksto assemble (and a big collection of wooden trains – half are used and abused – purchased at a consignment store and the others shiny and new purchased by Grandpa). At many of our local libraries, they have puzzles that he works with when we visit, and at his BC classes, they have lots of shape sorters, puzzles, and small manipulables to practice with.

We also “find” lots of things for him to learn spatial skills with: mixing bowls, measuring cups, plastic dishes for practice nesting things; sticks and rocks to stack into tall towers, an empty bottle from the recycling bin and some dry beans to drop in….

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

We own 5 balls of varying sizes, a kids’ baseball bat, a Strider bike, and a climber built of QUADROthat was a hand-me-down from a friend (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.) We also go swimming at least once a week, and go on one or two one-mile hikes a week and go to the playground a lot. When we’re out in the woods, he happily balances on logs and climbs trees and scales rocks.

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. So we’ve got a few stuffed animals, but he doesn’t play with them a lot. We have a collection of finger puppets that we tell stories with and that he also uses at naptime to tell stories to himself. We have a toy picnic basket with fake food, but we don’t use it a lot, so I think it will soon go to our Buy Nothing group. He’s just as happy to say that a rock is a chocolate cupcake and a handful of bark is french fries.We also make things… one of this week’s library books was Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe, and we made Model Magic dinosaurs to go with it – he mixes the colors and I do the sculpting.dino

We also make sure he gets lots of interaction with other kids – we spend lots of time at the playground, in free play with new kids, and meet friends for a weekly play-date which is all kid-guided, non-facilitated free play. (Kids learn a lot more about getting along with others and about conflict resolution when parents back off!)

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

As I say in the handout, this category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time. When we go on hikes in the woods, there’s a lot of quiet reflective time as well as song-singing, story-telling, nature-teaching time. He also has “nap time” every day. He stopped sleeping at nap time a few months ago, but still will play quietly in his room for 90 minutes every day. OK, not necessarily quietly – he plays his piano, and reads his books out loud with LOTS of feeling and dramatic interpretation! But it’s a good solo time for him (and for me).

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his sisters, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Do we have it right?

I feel like we have found a good balance… we have enough stuff at home that he is very capable of entertaining himself for a long time. And we make things a lot and find thins in nature, which gives him new toys and also shows ingenuity. Plus, we get out in the world a lot to explore the things we don’t have at home. I try to avoid owning “stupid” toys that I don’t like… they do enter our home sometimes if my kids go to a birthday party and come home with goody bags, or have lunch at McDonald’s with dad. But most of the toys we own I think are worthwhile.

William Morris once said “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a rule I try to live by for myself, and I think it also applies to my child’s things… but maybe there it’s something more like “Have nothing in your toy box that you do not know to be creativity-inspiring or believe to be a joy to play with.”

Cheap Dates with Toddlers: More “Natural” Playgrounds

Woodland Park playground by landscape structures

Woodland Park playground by landscape structures – click to enlarge pictures

Proponents of outdoor play and nature play know that one of the benefits of outdoor play is the range of physical skills used when playing outdoors: balancing on logs and climbing up trees requires kids to continually adapt their movement – reaching farther for some toe-holds than others… moving slower on slippery moss. Some modern playground manufacturers are starting to try to incorporate some of this variability and adventure in their playgrounds, while still making sure they meet all the safety requirements.
We recently checked out the playground at Woodland Park in Seattle (at 59th and Phinney Ave, by the north parking lot at the zoo). They have a new playground which has got some really cool features:

  • Ladders with uneven steps… challenge kids to pay attention and to adapt their movements to the variable heights of each step
  • “Rock climbing” ladders… kids scale uneven “rocks” to get to the slide
  • this rope dome thing that has no clear obvious way up, so kids have to get inventive to find their way up

Landscapes Structures is a national company. You can search for a Landscapes Structures playground near you: www.playlsi.com/

(I do have to say though, that just because it’s Landscape Structures won’t mean it’s this cool…. this is one of their newest designs I think – we’ve been to some parks with older equipment by them and they don’t have these organic features, though they’re still always nice.)

And also, I recommend getting your child out in nature, or in “found nature playgrounds” in your urban area.


Time to go wading!


What could be better on a hot day than wading in a cool creek?
It’s cool, the sound of the water is relaxing, it’s building big motor skills (staying balanced on uneven ground), small motor skills (picking up pebbles to throw), caution and limits (don’t go to the deep area), entomology (water bugs!), mud-ology  (check out this great post on the benefits of mud play http://rightfromthestart.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/build-a-mud-kitchen-why-playing-with-mud-is-good-for-children/) fluid dynamics (water moves much faster over the waterfall than on the flat), mama’s limits (you can’t play near the waterfall!)
Lots of great stuff!
Do be aware of safety. Watch for broken glass in the water if you’re wading barefoot. It’s great if you know drowning rescue and CPR just in case. And it’s best to go with friends to help keep an eye out for everyone. Shower or bathe when you get home to wash off any buggies…

Wading at Everest park in Kirkland, WA

Wading at Everest park in Kirkland, WA

These pictures were taken at Everest park in Kirkland, WA. Plan to park in the lot north of the ball-fields. The creek is between parking and fields / playground. I was surprised to find we were the only ones in the creek on this hot hot day, but this park is never crowded… It is one of those almost- undiscovered gems.  http://parksofkirkland.com/everest-park/

Note: You do need to closely supervise here… the middle picture above shows the waterfall at the edge of this little pond area.