Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Playing cars with boys

I am not sure how my son became such a fan of wheeled things. Sure, his Dad is a fan of Formula-one but he hasn't watched one since Dear Boy was born. We are generally not a car-loving people. Ours is a boring, third-hand station wagon. White. The fanciest thing about it is that, with the backseats down, we can fit our foofy, many-person couch in the back. Suddenly I am the parent of a son who's first noticeable word in context was 'car'. Anything with wheels 'car, car, car'.

I don't think I've made any secret of it that I was struggling with keeping Dear Boy entertained. Running cars backwards and forwards over the floor or the coffee table just isn't my thing. But it's his, so... you know... I play. I play as well as I can for as long as I can before it feels like my brains are slowly leaking out of my ears. And I've never really been sure why it felt so boring, so wrong, so unengaged.

Have you seen any of the ABC's Life At... series? It's a great '7 Up'-style documentary that's been following a group of children and their family life and development since they were one. Life At 1 first aired in 2006, and since then they've shown Life at 3, Life at 5 and, most recently, Life At 7. In each three-episode  series, the kids are filmed playing, in their homes, with their parents, doing traditional psychological experiments, etc. It's not just a doco, though, but part of a nationwide longitudinal study on children and childhood in Australia, a study that turned 10 a little while ago. They've amassed a huge amount of data in that time, studying and interviewing over 10,000 children and their parents every year or so.

In the most recent series, the seven year olds were set up with the 'Attractive Toy Experiment', which you can watch here. Essentially, groups of children are put in a room with an awesome and complex toy and they're observed as they play. In the video, a group of three girls and a group of three boys are filmed and the results sparked something for you. Dr Marc de Rosnay (a senior lecturer in psychology at University of Sydney) narrates as he watches the clips:
"Boys make more immediate attempts to play and to draw others into play. Girls spend the vast majority of time organising the play, making sure they consent to where things should go, what role things should have, where they should be, how it should be structured. Some of them never even start playing in the normal sense of the word, We don't know the reason why boys and girls are so different here but it does seem to be quite an enduring difference."
The boys just started playing and the girls spent their time organising and setting up the story. Ding.

That's how we play with cars and trains.

I'm not sure if this is actually what's happening when Dear Boy and I play, and I'm not at all certain that this is an accurate measurement of gender differences in play (I'm not a trained psychologist after all). A lot of this may be because of his age rather than his gender. But the difference between us seems to be he's happy to play without context, without story.

Me? I like creating the story. I want to talk about who might be driving the car and where they're going and what road they're driving on. I want to connect the tracks and build up the town. I want a setting and a narrative, dammit. My boy? He could really care less. He doesn't care if the tracks loop round or the road goes nowhere or even if there's a road at all. He's starting to tell stories himself, but is happy as a clam without context. He will lay in the dirt and run those cars back and forth as the world spins around him.

Since watching that video, I haven't tried to change the way either of us approaches play. He doesn't need me to zoom cars next to him and I don't need him to spew his imagination over the train tracks. But it's been nice to know that there's nothing wrong with the way we've been doing it all along.


  1. With two girls, I find this so interesting. My three year old would want to be telling the narrative about the cars. That they are off to the shops to by new shoes or off to the ball or something :)

  2. Eve likes to play with and without narrative, it's lovely though that you've spotted this difference and are still playing alongside him. It will mean the world to him as he grows.

  3. Did I miss life at 7? Oh no! I'm at a loss as to how anyone ever gets to watch the program they want!!

    In any case, I was never into my son's play in the same way I enjoyed the girls' efforts. I do think the genders just like approaching things differently. Mind you, I'm not a huge fan of any kid play, do maybe it's also an age thing!! x

    1. I missed it when it originally aired as well! But the ABC site I linked in the post has short videos of all the science-y segments from that season (all the experiments and the experts responding to those themes). I'm hoping for a repeat or I'll just have to wait for Life at 9!

  4. I used love playing smash the cars with my boys - I tried to set up fancy cities and parking lots but they just trashed them with their big smash ups. Turns out the smash ups were kind of fun... as fun as playing cars can get of course ;) xx


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