My Thoughts on ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free’ Part 2

Last week, I wrote a post about the first part of a programme on BBC Two called ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’. Last night the second part was aired. It’s currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

In the first part, presenter and doctor Javid began an experiment to see if removing differences of gender from the lives of children, their opinions and behaviour could be changed.

This continues in the second part. The children are given tangram puzzles to solve, which can help develop spacial awareness, a trait commonly thought of as naturally stronger in males. However, as experts (such as Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive imaging, featured in the programme) have found that the brain changes its structure depending on experiences. This idea could mean that if boys and girls were given equal opportunity to practice developing spacial awareness, there would be no gender difference in this skill. Indeed, results of this experiment show that while the girls initially struggled more than the boys (who more commonly played with LEGO and other toys that can also develop this skill), by the end of two weeks practice, this difference disappeared and abilities were far more equal.

This part of the programme focused heavily on the toys and clothes that children are given, which Javid claims are separated mainly into blue for boys and pink for girls, with stereotyped slogans common for each. Examples given in the programme were t shirts saying ‘Forever Beautiful’ for a girl and ‘Here comes trouble for a boy’. In those slogans are stereotypes that for a girl, the ultimate aspiration is be physically attractive and to remain so, while boys are almost expected to have poor behaviour and be tough and aggressive. None of these messages are positive. My own daughter does like wearing dresses but equally she likes wearing jeans and a t shirt. She has owned more than one t shirt that came from the boys section of a shop, simply because they had designs she liked (both had super heroes on). I’m pretty careful about clothing anyway, especially as a lot of the clothes for girls are, in my opinion, really inappropriate for the age they’re designed for. I could get seriously lost in a tangent on this though so I’ll stop that there!

Javid visited the children’s homes to try and help the parents take away gender differences there too. A girl’s pink dolls and princess toys were bagged up and removed from her room. While they were later replaced with other, more neutral toys, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad for her. I know my daughter is quite attached to some of her toys so this felt a bit harsh. Couldn’t neutral toys and dressing up clothes (this girl had a wardrobe filled to bursting with princess dresses) be offered without taking away toys the child already owns? While I agree that having a variety is good, I don’t see anything wrong with a girl having a princess dress or doll if that’s what she wants. Looking in my own daughter’s room, she does have quite a bit of pink but equally lots of other colours and a real variety of toys – dolls that live in her doll’s house, a jewellery box and lots of cuddly toys but also a big box full of books (none of which are very girly as that just isn’t the kind of story she likes) and an enormous collection of LEGO that is threatening to take over the whole room! She does have some pink, girly stuff but there’s also a Spiderman poster on her wall and an Incredible Hulk figure on her windowsill. It’s her room and looking at it shows the vast variety of her interests.

Replacement toys were given to the children to make up for the ones that had been removed. Marble runs and robot kits for the girls, sewing and craft kits for the boys. All of the children seemed to enjoy them and I did think this was a positive way of challenging the toy stereotyping. I simply think it could have been done without taking the children’s possessions away from them.

Another change made was having the children all use unisex toilets. I wasn’t sure I saw the point of this but when you think about it, toilets at home are unisex so why are they using separate toilets? It was not a change that the children really liked. The girls said that the boys’ lack of hygiene put them off using the bathroom with one girl saying that she tried to hold it in all day – very unhealthy! As it was only one block of toilets that had been made unisex, that meant that a whole class of 30 children had only 3 toilets to use between them. These are issues that could be solved though. The boys’ awareness of hygiene, regardless of any gender experiment, needs to be addressed anyway as it’s a health risk. Also, if these changes were made school-wide and all toilets were unisex, the issue of a lack of toilets to use would be solved too. However, I’m still not convinced by this particular change.

Chores were also looked at. In the UK, women do 60% more of the unpaid work such as household chores and childcare. Initially, it seemed that even when the children’s fathers took on more of the chores, the children still believed that it was more of a female task. An experiment on the beach showed mixed results, with the children splitting themselves off into mixed gender groups for the tasks of preparing the picnic or preparing the fire pit but then the boys lost interest and blamed this on preparing food being a ‘girl’s thing’. In our house, I do pretty much all of the housework and more of the childcare than my husband does. However, he works at a full time job, while I only work part time. I have been careful to explain to my daughter that this, rather than our genders, is the reason for the way we manage these things and that other families do things differently, depending on what works for them. If I were to start working full time, the way we manage work at home would change.

The children were then split into mixed teams to practice playing football, a stereotypically male sport. When asked if they wanted to remain in mixed teams or change into boys vs. girls, most of the children chose to remain in their mixed teams – a positive result. I know my daughter has struggled to be ‘allowed’ to play football with her male friends at school and often feels the boys are being too rough for her to join in.

At the end of the programme, Javid presented the overall results from tests that were done at the beginning of the experiment and repeated at the end.

The difference between boys and girls in self esteem dropped from 8% to 0.2% with many of the girls saying they felt more confident, echoed by their teachers and parents. The girls also started using more positive words such as ‘unique’ and ‘happy’ to describe themselves, rather than ‘pretty’ or ‘ugly’ and were 40% more accurate when predicting their own abilities when at the beginning they had tended to drastically underestimate themselves.

The boys’ pro-social behaviour improved by 10% and they scored higher on the emotional intelligence tests.  Their female classmates, their teachers and their parents all commented that the boys had become more caring and empathetic and less aggressive.

These results, to me, are really indicative of the positive changes that come from challenging gender stereotypes.

This school’s headteacher announced that she wants to extend the changes made in the classroom to the entire school. I hope that other parents and educators watching the programme take similar steps. I would love to see my daughter’s school making these changes.

Mr Andre, the teacher whose class took part in the experiment, took on board where he needed to change and has embraced it so whole heartedly that he’s now presenting new gender neutral teaching methods, not just within his own school but also to the Institute of Education. I hope this leads to UK-wide change.

Personally, I think this programme has shown the good that can come from making boys and girls more equal. Of course there are biological differences between the genders. But in most ways, we can be equal and if we start showing our children this now, maybe our future society can be a more equal place for all.

What were your thoughts on this programme?

 

 

 

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Chrome for Kids

These days, learning to use a computer is as essential as learning to read.

I know, many will consider a controversial thing to say but I really believe it. Students (of all ages) need to use computers in almost any subject and most future careers require at least some computer use.

With our daughter turning seven this year, we decided to buy her a laptop. She’s had use of a second hand iPad for a long while but we wanted her to get used to a keyboard, which she mostly avoids on the iPad. We also wanted her to to have experience of different operating systems, since at home we only use Mac.

We decided on getting a chromebook for the following reasons:

  • She’s quite familiar with the operating system since she uses it at school already.
  • They come pre-loaded with anti-virus software so you don’t need to worry about it yourself.
  • You can set up parental controls – very important if she’s going online.
  • Lightweight. We wanted something she could easily carry around for herself and could be taken out of the house.

There are loads of options available. We picked the Lenovo N22-20 Chromebook. It’s very lightweight and even has a handle – very convenient for a seven year old to carry it around with limited risk of it being dropped. It’s got a decent battery life – up to 14 hours according to the Lenovo website and I will say that we’ve found it doesn’t need to be charged very often, though I haven’t actually timed it. It’s also has a rotating camera on it, which is a nice feature and great fun for kids.

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Sadly, I do have a rather large complaint to make of the Chrome OS. The parental controls are rubbish. I know that sounds blunt and harsh and usually I’m the kind of blogger to try and play up the positives of products but seriously, it’s rubbish.

In order to set up parental controls, you need to set up an account as the parent and then a ‘Supervised Account’ for the child. This is already a bit annoying. But nothing compared to the fact that you can’t access apps from the supervised account. Seriously. My daughter can’t access applications from her own user account on her own laptop.

Also, the internet parental controls are seriously lacking. I’ve gone through the tutorials, I’ve checked advice from Google and various people on online forums but essentially what I’ve got is a situation where she can look at whatever the hell she wants and all I can do is check up on it later. What on earth is the point of that?! Please Google, sort this out. ASAP.

However, she does love it. Luckily there are plenty of websites with great content and stuff for her, like the CBBC and CBeebies websites. Plus, she can access Google Docs, since that’s website based, so she can practice her typing. This week, during half term, we’re going to look at Scratch, the website based application for teaching children to code.

So my overall impression is that Chromebooks are useful, lightweight and simple machines for people who just want to use the internet, email and the odd application. As something for a child as their own computer, it’s a bit disappointing but, might still be the best reasonably priced option available.

Catch up: An Ending and a Beginning

So it’s been a pretty busy time around here.

Pip turned seven a few weeks ago. We had a family event for the actual day; just a little tea party with some visiting relatives. Then the following weekend, she had a few friends over for another tea party. This was an opportunity (excuse might be a more accurate term) for me to design personalised placemats and invitations and little thank you notes to go into the party bags. I hadn’t quite anticipated just how much noise a few six & seven year old girls could make but still, a good time was had by all.

Then last weekend, I attended my graduation ceremony at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay. It was brilliant. I will admit to being slightly nervous that I might trip and fall straight into the orchestra pit in front of the stage but I actually managed to avoid this, which really felt like as much of an achievement as attaining a degree. The robes were a little awkward but overall, made me feel a bit like a student at Hogwarts rather than the Open University. Anyone who knows me will know how happy that made me. Husband was graduating at the same time and looked extremely dignified in his robes, which didn’t keep slipping off like mine did. I’m not the kind of person to feel very proud of myself about anything but I genuinely felt rather smug for nearly a whole day. After six years of hard work, I think I was entitled to that.

Just before my graduation, I got a tweet, totally out of the blue, about a rather exciting opportunity. Long story short, I’m now the local editor for the Bubele newsletter for Cardiff. It’s fortnightly and I promise it’ll be packed with fun stuff for families in the Cardiff area. My first newsletter will be emailed out on 2nd November so do sign up! Bubele is also an app with lots of listings for family fun throughout the UK – I recommend downloading it and signing up for whichever newsletter covers your area. I certainly like having activities lined up, equally for the school holidays and for those long weeks of monotonous routine in between so I really feel like this is a useful tool for any parent.

I’m feeling uncharacteristically positive about all of the above. My little girl is getting ever bigger and brighter and more brilliantly unique. I’ve achieved something I never thought I’d be able to. I’ve got a new opportunity for writing more. Everything’s just bloody marvellous!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes a children’s book ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

Today’s blog post has been inspired by my university studies. I’m studying children’s literature and at the moment focusing on what people consider to be good or bad books for children.

For my own child, I often pick or suggest to her books that I read and enjoyed when I was young, such as the works of Roald Dahl. I’d like to introduce her to Enid Blyton next and I’ll probably recommend Jacqueline Wilson as she gets a bit older. As she gets into her teenage years, I’ll encourage her to read some classics, like Austen, Bronte and some more modern works like Orwell but I wonder how much she’ll ignore me and read contemporary books instead. How much should this really bother me?

One thing that’s really surprised me in my studies is discovering that Dahl and Blyton, the very books I’d consider to be very good books to suggest to my own child, were seen as having low literary and moral standards pre-1960. Debates from the time about whether these books might be bad influences on our children remind me a great deal of the debates over the influence of violence in films and video games that have been going on for the past couple of decades (and show no signs of ending).

On first thinking about it, I couldn’t really think of a book that I would disapprove of. But now I’ve realised that’s not quite true at all. I often steer her towards books that might provide her with more of a challenge, not wanting her to get something too simple. I might tell her and myself that it’s because I think she’ll get bored of something too simple but is it really because I’m drawn to the idea that every reading experience she has should be an improving one? I have once or twice surreptitiously gotten rid of books that I’ve found to have grammar or spelling mistakes, while despairing of whichever publishing company let these through the editing process.

Am I worrying too much about what my child reads? Or is this exactly what, as a parent, I should be doing? Isn’t it my responsibility to make sure she’s getting the best experiences possible? I find it difficult at the best of times to find a balance between guiding her in the right direction (or at least what I perceive as the right direction) and letting her be independent. She’s a very strong-willed person and I’m happy with that, especially as it took me years of purposefully forcing myself to be more assertive to be even slightly sure of the choices I make. But I know that being strong-willed might lead to a tendency of not listening to other opinions, of being blinkered to your own view of the world which you are convinced is the correct one. I definitely don’t want this for my daughter. Again, it seems to be a matter of balance.

I’m very interested to get opinions from other parents (and indeed anyone who chooses books for children in any capacity) on this. Do you choose books for your children or just let them pick whatever they like? Do you attempt to steer them in certain directions regarding what they read? Are there any books (aimed at children) that you would not let your children read or at least would strongly disapprove of?

Happy Chinese New Year!

Celebration days are a great opportunity for learning about other places and cultures. So today, because it’s Chinese New Year, we’ve been learning about China and Chinese culture.

We watched video clips on the internet about people living in China. The CBeebies website is great for finding videos on a wide range of subjects, all aimed at younger children. These taught Pip a lot about how Chinese people celebrate Chinese New year and the meanings behind their customs and traditions.

We used the Barefoot Atlas iPad app to find China on the globe then found out lots of facts about places and culture in China. I really like this app because it’s great either to use for looking at a specific country and getting an idea of where it is in the world but also for Pip to explore alone, finding places in the world that she wants to know more about.

For lunch, I made a yummy sweet and sour vegetable stir fry. Unfortunately it wasn’t a meal that Pip could join in with making but she did enjoy watching me make it and talking about all of the different ingredients.

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In the afternoon, we made Chinese style paper lanterns, decorated with stickers and glitter glue (really they should have been red but these were the colours we had in our crafty box).

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We’ve had a great time learning about China today. Happy Chinese New Year everyone!

10 ways to Learn at Home

In the past, I’ve blogged a lot about teaching Pip at home and we even considered home education for a while. In the end, we made the decision to send her to school but that doesn’t mean the end of learning at home!

I’m very much of the opinion that education can and should continue at home. And no, I do not mean doing homework! Children learn through everything they do and there’s no need for it to be boring or hard work. Most of Pip’s reading, writing and maths skills have been learnt at home, plus lots of other knowledge about the world around her. So here are our favourite ways to learn at home:

1. Tabletop Games 

If you read this blog regularly, you might have seen this one coming! Tabletop games are extremely varied and fantastic for developing all kinds of skills, from reading and maths to important social skills like cooperation, taking turns and being a good sport – whether you win or lose! My recommendations include Roll For It, Hoot Owl Hoot, Skunk Bingo and Race to the Treasure. There are also story card games, like Tell Me a Story, which are great for creativity and logic and also a card game called Foodeeze, a kind of food top trumps which is brilliant for teaching about healthy eating.

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2. Worksheets

I know this might sound boring but it really doesn’t need to be. I keep a selection of letter and number formation, simple maths sums and filing in the missing letter sheets for Pip to do at times when I need to do some housework or cooking or just when she wants them. She gets a real sense of achievement from completing them and I often give her a little sticker as reward. I make many of my own worksheets but I also use Twinkl and other internet resources for them.

3. Barefoot World Atlas App

This is my favourite app for children and it’s been immensely useful for teaching Pip some geography and about other places and cultures in the world. She loves just exploring it on her own or we use it together. I ask her to find countries or to show me where you’d find certain animals. Where she’s taken a particular interest in a place, it’s led to lots of other research and learning. It’s a really good educational resource.

4. The Internet

Used correctly, the internet is the most valuable source of learning available and teaching a child to use it is, I think, vital. We regularly choose a topic and use the internet to research it, looking at photos and videos to really engage Pip. Recently it’s already started helping with homework she’s given from school. Sometimes it’ll lead us to printing off things for her to do like colouring in or worksheets or just a picture of something that’s really interested her to keep. I’m planning to paint an decorate a small cardboard box for her to keep things in such as pictures we’ve printed, her drawings and anything else that she’d like to keep.

5. Books and the local library

Pip owns a large number of books. Most are storybooks, some are non-fiction books on various subjects. She has a set of books designed for helping her learn to read. We regularly visit our local library to find more books to read. I try to encourage to pick up at least one non-fiction book while we’re there too. From books, she’s learnt about volcanoes, where our clothes come from, about different animals, history, geography and, her favourite subject, dinosaurs.

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6. Local leisure centre

Physical activity and social skills are essential parts of education. Of course, school provides plenty of both but I think it’s a good idea to have social time and exercise outside of school too. We go swimming at our local leisure centre and Pip went to a Halloween party there last year but I don’t feel like I’ve taken as much advantage of the facilities as I should. I’m already planning to take her to at least one activity session there during half term, when she’ll inevitably be missing her school friends.

7. Museums & Local Places of Interest

If you look around your local area, there are lots of often low cost educational opportunities. For example, Cardiff, where we live, has two museums just in the centre of town, plus a castle which is free for local residents. Within not too far a distance there’s also Techniquest and a Wetlands Reserve in Cardiff Bay and St Fagan’s Museum to the west of Cardiff. There are also lots of events and activities going on all the time. Pip’s favourite days out usually involve at least one museum visit and a trip to Cardiff castle to see the owls that live there. It’s a great hands-on way to learn and gain knowledge in new ways.

8. Parks

Teaching children about nature and wildlife really requires an outdoor space. With no garden, we go on regular walks in our local park. It’s all about encouraging her to notice things – talking about different seeds and things we found on the ground, being quiet for a moment to hear the different birds, talking about how things have changed with the seasons.

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9. Art and craft

Creativity and expression are very important in child development. In every topic we learn about, I try to think of a creative activity associated with it. I also let Pip freely express herself creatively too. We use paints, pencils, crayons, play dough and beads. I love watching her come up with her own ideas then work out how to carry them out.

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10. Preparing Food

Cooking and food preparation are important life skills, plus it involve lots of other skills – following a recipe involves reading, thinking methodically, using scales to weigh ingredients. We make sandwiches, pizzas, pastries and lots of other simple meals, plus lots of baking! It’s also a good way of talking about which foods are healthy and why and what a healthy meal should consist of.

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How do your children learn at home? Please share any ideas!

Learning to Read: Songbird Series

I love to read. I was always a quiet child and often had my nose in a book. While Pip isn’t at all a quiet child, she does seem to have picked up the same love of books. She’s always been very enthusiastic about reading and that made teaching her at home simple and really enjoyable. Her reading level, according to teachers, is now where they’d expect her to be at the beginning of Year 1 and it’s definitely her biggest strength.

The only problem was that she often became frustrated when she gets stuck on a word and, after attempting to read it herself, has to ask me. I tell her the word, explain any tricky grammar which made the word hard for her and move on. But after that, she’s always a bit unhappy and less likely to really try with any other words she doesn’t immediately know but that usually she could work out on her own. If she makes more than one mistake or struggles more than once in a book, she’ll more than likely ask to stop altogether. I realised that what she needed were books that she could read entirely without much help from me.

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So I was really pleased when she was given the Songbird set of reading books for Christmas. They are all written by Julia Donaldson, who we already know and love for The Gruffulo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Monkey Puzzle, amongst many others. They are structured in stages so that the child can progress as they learn, at their own pace. The stages are colour coded so it’s easy for Pip to choose a book of her level on her own. They are really nice stories but told in small, easily read words and phrases. The illustrations are all great and by a variety of artists and in different styles which adds a bit of interest.

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Pip began reading the First Stage books and was so proud of herself when she read an entire book by herself for the first time. Now we try to read one book every day, either from the set or one that she brings home from school. She really enjoys it and its lovely to see her actually enjoying the story rather than struggling with reading. You migt notice that some of our copies have gold stars on – that’s our reward system, Pip gets a gold star every time she reads a book without any help. I don’t want to rush her but I think I’m going to start introducing the second stage books now. I’ve had a look at them and I really think she’s ready for it.

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I can’t recommend this set enough for any child learning to read – they’re just brilliant!