BOYS AS young as four play action and adventure games while girls of the same age find ways to incorporate domestic or family role play into their games.
By the time they start reception, pupils already have firmly gender-based notions of imaginative play. Boys chose games such as pirate ship or spaceship. Girls wanted to play house, a Plymouth university study found.
Pupil Alfie told researchers: "We didn't like the house. It was girls' play because it had flowers on it."
When forced to play house, boys transformed it into a cops-and-robbers plot with burglars, police or superheroes. A game set in a castle would include battles and killing dragons. By contrast, girls would invent stories about mums and dads or princesses. They preferred nurturing or caretaking games, such as mother and baby.
Girls also appropriate games to their own ends. A girl playing spaceship might take on the role of mother astronaut. Researchers overheard dialogue such as: "We're going the other way now, mum. We're going to crash."
Researchers interviewed reception pupils at three schools in the south west of England. The interviews revealed that the children often saw role play games as an opportunity to confirm friendships and resolve conflict. "I won't be your friend" was used to ensure compliance.
And play enabled children to develop shared history. Jenni is quoted saying to a classmate: "Do you remember in pre-school? Ali was the mum, you were the dad and I was the daughter."
Imaginative play also helped define relationships between children and adults. Researchers frequently observed play curtailed by adults, who demanded that children speak in "classroom voices".
Adults also attempted to direct children's play. When a teacher told four pupils to pretend to work in a travel shop, they rebelled. Chloe, 5, complained: "We don't want to be here. It's boring."
Many pupils saw adult direction as a decisive factor in differentiating work and play. The researchers said: "Role play was only regarded by children as play when they had some measure of control over where, how and what they played.
"They actively engaged in reinventing the activity, even when their actions challenged class routines and expectations of adults."
'Playing The Game?' by Sue Rogers and Julie Evans, Plymouth university and the College of St Mark and St John.