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Play puts gender on agenda

Play-led learning in the foundation phase could defeat traditional gender stereotypes in the long-term, according to an expert.

Sally Featherstone, an education consultant and former head, said the new curriculum in Wales was a chance for teachers to break free from the old-fashioned mentality that all boys like playing with cars and all girls want to play with dolls.

"The foundation phase is a chance to think about the language and attitudes you use automatically," she told TES Cymru. "Most of all, it's an opportunity to look at what's right for individual children - not sexes - and to show them alternatives."

During a speech at a conference to share ideas about the foundation phase in Cardiff last week, Ms Featherstone displayed magazines aimed at pre-pubescent boys and girls. She said: "The girls always get pink things. The gifts they are given are sparkly hairbands or notebooks to write secrets in. The boys always get red and blue things, and the toys are physical, something you can throw or play with."

The early-years expert believes challenging these stereotypes could change the image of reading from being a "girl thing". But there is still a long way to go in breaking down stereotypes, she said - especially among fathers.

One teacher at the conference told of a dad who had complained that his three-year-old boy was choosing pink wellies over blue.

Ms Featherstone said often people confused gender with sexuality, even with very young children: "Yes, there are traits associated with different genders, but there is also a gender spectrum and people are in different places on it."

She also believes having more male nursery and primary teachers would create a better environment for pupils: "There's still a question mark over men in the classroom, and people wonder when they are going to be promoted to somewhere else in the school," she said.

"I think early-years staff should be paid better. But for the moment, teachers can be more aware of gender differences and how they approach them."

One suggestion was for female teachers to go regularly into areas of the classroom that are considered "boys' areas".


At Grangetown Nursery in Cardiff, boys are being switched on to reading by playing with cars.

"Instead of just using fairytales, which the boys were not so interested in, we have an MOT garage," said Janet Comrie, the nursery's head.

Both genders - but mostly boys - have taken on the role of fledgling mechanics, washing the car enthusiastically, changing its tyres and writing MOT slips. They also play at being traffic wardens, issuing parking tickets with relish.

As a result, the teachers have noticed a big impact on the language development of this year's three and four-year-olds.

And girls' physical development has also improved as they play together outside.

"They are doing X-Factor, with a stage and dancing and dressing up," Ms Comrie said.

The school's latest inspection report praised the way teachers promote gender equality. Inspectors said boys and girls played equally with all resources and there were no significant differences between their achievement.

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