Just when you thought it was safe to admit nature played a large part in gender roles, Jill Parkin reports on the threat of a new and deep sexual divide
Nursery workers no longer strive to make girls and boys the same. The influence of nature is recognised, as well as nurture. The ideal today is to prevent stereotyping while respecting the differences between the sexes.
As those who daily look after small children in nurseries are becoming more pragmatic, early years experts in academic departments are forecasting a violent lurch of the pendulum. They believe the national curriculum and testing at five could breed a generation of super-girly girls and disaffected boys.
At the Pen Green Centre for Under-fives, at Corby in North-amptonshire, staff have rethought their approach to guns and Barbie dolls. Margy Whalley, research, training and development director of the centre, says: "Three years ago we would have said no to weapons. But boys will use anything to make guns and swords - even Lego - whether you allow it or not.
"Children will go with their dominant need. So we need guidelines about not pointing weapons at children who don't want to be human targets, and perhaps accept that boys and girls can have good fun with water pistols. We need a more creative approach than simply saying 'no'. Weapons can be made into imaginative play. We've had lots of King Arthur games. You have to find something better than just going 'u-u-u-u' with a gun."
And girls who just want to play with dolls can be encouraged to use the toys creatively. Ms Whalley says: "We recently had a whole staff planning session on Barbie. A lot of the time Barbie is not being Barbie. We had a little girl for whom she was Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Barbie can give children a chance to act out and role-play. Esmerelda-Barbie inspired a nursery trip to Peterborough Cathedral. She's also a friendship tool, and can give a child entry into a group of people she wants to be part of. So you don't need to ban them and you don't need to stick with plastic bimbettes."
Rosemary Murphy, chair of the National Private Day Nurseries Association, also runs Portland House Private Day Nursery in Huddersfield. She says: "Even though boys and girls are presented with the same settings, they choose differently because they are different. There used to be a feeling that given the chance girls would all choose to work with engineering and bricks. But, by and large, they don't.
"People are very aware of the risk of pushing boys and girls into stereotypes. At that age there's little danger of forcing them to be the same. In these early years the more we can treat them as the same the better. They all need an introduction to cooking, to the construction equipment and the woodwork table. These are the skills every young person may need in life. They are rudimentary. "
So far, so good - gender studies have come of age. It seems we can admit the differences without fear of producing Rambos and bimbos. And we can intervene without heavy-handed dogma.
Dr Tony Bertram, co-director of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood at Worcester College of Higher Education, has watched boys entering the socially sophisticated female stronghold of the home corner and girls loitering around the car mat. He advocates sessions of single-sex play, so children can express themselves free from the influence of whatever sex ususally dominates a particular piece of equipment or activity.
"In role-play sessions the boys tend to be relegated to non-speaking parts such as patients, babies and dogs," he says. "At the car mat and construction table, girls are marginalised. The boys should be allowed to play in the home corner on their own and the girls on the car mat on their own."
But Dr Bertram fears the plague of stereotyping could be returning, this time on the back of education legislation. He says: "We are admitting children into formal education ever younger. As the economy needs more women to work, we are replacing old-style family rearing with formal schooling.
"The Government's desirable outcomes for children leaving pre-school, and the national curriculum give a rigid idea of childhood - and it's one that disadvantages boys. Whether socially or biologically determined, girls are more acquiescent, quieter, better at sitting and talking, and have more role models because most nursery workers are female. They are better at learning in a formal atmosphere.
"Boys seem more robust and exploratory. The more rigid things become, the less opportunity they will have. We should be going with the natural grain of the child. We have to do it both genders' ways. And neither sex should be debarred from experiences they wouldn't have in the normal, narrow course of things. "
Vicky Hurst, a lecturer in early childhood at Goldsmiths College, London, fears for the girls too. She says: "The emphasis on outcomes gives children little opportunity to progress in their own areas at their own rate.
"A good-quality education in the nursery is not an over-formal one. It is one that gives both genders the opportunity to extend themselves.
"If we accept we need male and female approaches in society, we should have that attitude in the nursery. There's a danger we will soon have nursery staff saying: 'You can't go out until you have sat down and done some proper work.' "Boys need to learn through physical activity more than girls. We must take the learning to the boys. They like roaring around on bikes and tractors. So why not have a garage for practical maths, technology and literacy?
"There are some good things in the desirable outcomes, but forcing formal achievement on children too young could be bad for girls as well. They are more able to learn in a formal way than boys, more likely to play mummy-type games. But we want girls who can take the initiative. They need the opportunity to become properly and politely assertive, to get their turn on the computer, and to get the teacher's attention.
"If we have a narrow, schooly approach in early years, boys will become disaffected and alienated, while girls will quietly become more and more girly. And both will be sedentary and have deterioration of the coronary arteries. It's an unhealthy prospect."