boys - a classroom to call their own

a boy: noise with dirt on it

I have 2 kids - a boy and a girl.  Before they were born, I figured that the difference between boys and girls was primarily a nurture thing.  And I was going to treat my kids the same.  I loved them both the same, but found that love was shown differently, 'cause they had different needs.

When they were wee, I spent hours admiring my daughter's twirling (outfits were rated on their twirl-ability), and playing dressing up, and creating things.  With my son, I learned the names of countless diggers and spent many hours sitting by the side of the road watching big machines at work.

my family a few years ago with wee kids
I am glad that I had the opportunity to raise a son.  Boys are cool.

I figure that every year roughly half my class will be boys.  Give or take a kidlet or two.

It's August - time to set up the classroom for the year. I need to make sure that my room is and feels like a place that my boys can call their own.

I believe that it is important to consciously make our classrooms boy-friendly.

• Most early-learning teachers are women. We think like girls.
• Boys' brains development sequence is different than than girls.  The verbal-linguistic learning style that most classrooms are based on, favours girls' brain development.
• Boys, on average, have a higher rate of discipline issues and a higher drop out rate than girls.  More girls than boys attend post secondary education.

If my boy was still wee and about to start his school career, I would be looking for a classroom that allowed him to be a boy.

Boys need room to move.

That does not mean that I need a wrestling mat in the middle of my classroom.  It does mean that there needs to be the space and opportunity to be able to learn through activity.  Kidlets need to be able to move (reasonably so) without constantly asking permission.

Boy need to get outside - preferably in a natural setting.  They need a legitimate opportunity to use large muscle movements - running, jumping, rolling, crashing into things. The need for rough and tumble play and schools' unwillingness to allow for it, is hard on our boys.  Spending time in a natural setting outside improved focus when returning to structured learning in the classroom.

Boys' learning strength lies in doing, touching and figuring out. I need to make sure that my environment invites and allows my kidlets to touch, explore and discover.

Young boys' brains designed for activity and doing, not for relationship and reflecting.  (That's why boys typically choose an activity rather than choose a friend, and then decide what to do.)

Boys need to be allowed to explore a fascination with guns, blood, and death in their play.   While this type of play has been around longer than toy guns and violent movies, many schools have zero tolerance of "violent" behaviour. But if it is play, is it violent?  I don't have any toy guns in my classroom, and I never will.  But the kidlets are allowed to make guns.

Inside is a shooting-free zone.  But outside, kidlets can shoot, capture, rescue and die ... just so long as it is play.  In play, we don't mean to hurt or scare anyone.  In play, we don't inflict our game on anyone who is not playing (no shooting anyone who is not playing the game).  And play is not real.

Read more about (mostly) boys' fascination with violent play.

My boys need to see that our classroom reflects them and their interests.

I want all my kidlets to love books and enjoy reading for pleasure.  So, I need books that my boys like to read - typically non-fiction.  In my classroom, my snake, shark, mega trucks and big machines books get a lot of air time with my boys.  Space, animals and dinosaurs books are also popular.

There are hard hats, tool belts, tutus and superhero capes are in the dress up bins.  Blocks, sticks, toy firefighters and police officers, stuffies, rocks and dolls are available to play with.

My boys like to feel comfortable in the classroom, but are no good at tiptoeing around so that they do not break or disturb anything.  I have noticed many of my boys connect with an uncluttered environment and can become overstimulated by too much "stuff".

All kidlets, and especially boys, thrive on being independent and self-directed, within understood boundaries.

I tell my kidlets that they are old enough to know when they need to use the washroom or use a tissue.  They do not need to tell me or ask permission to do either.  (We are fortunate to have a washroom in the classroom.)  Anything that is out on the shelves is available to use - they don't need to ask.  If they make a mess, they know how to clean it up and are expected to do so.  At reading time, they can choose their own books to read. Without the opportunity to make good choices, how will my kidlets learn self-regulation.  I figure - as much freedom as possible, boundaries that are necessary.

The most important ingredient in a classroom is the teacher.  I would want to know that my wee boy was going to be liked by his teacher.  With all his boy-ness - his wiggles, the siren noises that he insists on making when playing with cars, the lack of interest in colouring (especially within the lines), his humour which often involves the words "diaper" and "fart", and his need to feel capable and competent.  Will the teacher see all that, and see the wee boy underneath who needs to learn so many skills and wants so desperately to be accepted and loved.

We need to "fall in love" (in an appropriate teacher sort of way) with all the boys that we are blessed with - noise and dirt included.

boy-friendly resources

Getting Boys to Read - elementary classroom strategies
Boys in the Classroom
Boys Project
Raise a Boy blog
Males in Early Childhood blog
Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax - an excellent and thought provoking read

disclaimer:  All boys are individual, and have their own individual, unique characteristics.  I am generalizing about typical boy behaviours. I live with a man, I have raised a son, but I have a girl brain and think like a girl.

Here is me and my "wee" boy (he's 6'4") this May.



  1. Sandi,
    I loved this post! It came at the perfect time as so many of us are setting up our classrooms. You gave me lots of food for thought! I, too, went into education thinking there was no inherent difference between boys and girls. I was stunned to see the HUGE difference!! Your loving post expresses it well. I do indeed have such a girl brain and I have never raised a boy, so your words have helped me sort through some things. Thank you!
    An Open Door

  2. Hi Sandi,
    I so agree with almost everything you said. I think it is so important that schools recognize the way boys play and especially their need for space, and interactive toys. The boys in my class love cars, blocks, paper towel tubes, upside down toy bins and tables (and especially using all these things together!) I think that boys thrive on not being limited by how they are expected to use the toys. As you point out, space is really important to boys and last year I was really pleased with the success I had when I had fewer toys out in the classroom at any one time. I also love that at my school we are able to spend so much time outside where both the boys and girls can run and ride and dig and jump.
    I am much more conflicted about the idea of gun play at school. Since I work at a Quaker preschool, it is not really an issue for me. We always tell the kids that weapons are not allowed at school. Truth be told, I have seen lego guns suddenly morph into space ships or tools when a teacher arrives but that creativity usually makes me smile. I also understand that allowing "superhero play" and "star wars play", both of which were popular this year, might be considered "violent play" by some. I guess my own personal bias is that imaginative play is okay, with the understanding that at school the imaginative play can not involve weapons and, if the kids can't figure out how to make that work, they have to find something else to play. I appreciate your post because it made me think more deliberately about whether my classroom and our school's policies are addressing what boys need.
    On that note, I agree that what boys need most is the feeling that their teacher loves them. I agree that boys are sometimes made to feel that they are "bad" by women teachers because the boys are active, wiggly, noisy and need to explore to learn. As the mother of three wonderful examples of "noise with dirt on it," it is especially important to me that as a teacher I always appreciate the needs of the boys in my class.
    Mrs. Goff's Pre-K Tales

    1. Emotionally I have a hard time with gun play too. I did not have any toy guns at home when my son was younger, and I will never have them in my classroom. I often talk to my kids about how real guns scare me, because real guns can be used to hurt and kill real people. (I am Canadian, and I firmly believe in gun control.) My boys who have been the most fascinated by guns, have been my least violence-oriented students. The little guy in the picture with the toilet paper roll pistol was totally fascinated by guns in kindergarten, but is also in awe of beautiful architecture and is unusually sensitive to the power of nature. Another little fellow, had watched the movie Sounder, and carrying a gun became part of his persona for a time. This little guy created a Hamlet pumpkin face at Halloween that pondered, "to be, or not to be ....". Boys - they are such interesting little critters ... gotta love them.


  3. I love this post, Sandi. I raised two boys and had so much fun with them. I loved all the boy stuff ~ they were just so in to playing with everything and using their wild imaginations all the time! I'm with you ... I don't have toy guns in the classroom either. And we didn't buy them for our own boys (well, except for those very cool huge spray guns -- ha ha), but they were always making them. I remember playing "war" all the time as a young girl. I'd play with my brother and his friends and those nights hiding in the bushes and behind the hills are some of my favourite memories. Fresh air, lots of running around, and vivid imaginations!! It doesn't mean you grow up to be violent.

    Grade ONEderful
    Ruby Slippers Blog Designs

    1. Barbara, your post reminded me about playing "Charlie's Angels" (the first one with Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson) as a kid. We would play in the bushes, run or ride our bikes through back allies, "getting" the bad guys and being shot at in return. (girls were angels, boys were bad guys) It was a lot of fun.
      I am so thankful that I had a son - he has taught me a lot about boy-dom.


  4. Hi Sandi,
    As a teacher and as a mother to be of a baby boy coming this November I can't thank you enough for this post. I teach in an urban, inner city environment where I have never allowed gun play. Your thoughts on it and approach really have opened my eyes and when I get back in the classroom will approach it differently. Fear takes over, inhibiting creativity and expression!
    Thank you for this post!
    Playful Learning Brooklyn

  5. Love this post Sandi & I can see that any boys in your classroom will never feel 'bad' because you understand their behaviour. I have always had more boys than girls in my classes & had to adapt the whole set up - allowing for more outdoor time etc. This year I have more girls so it will be interesting to see if my classroom 'suits' them!

  6. Loving this post about boys..I agree with all that you have said. Especially about toy guns. Thanks for this post!

  7. Seems serendipitous that you stumbled on to my blog, which led me back to yours - I have hashing out a blog post about this very thing - having a "girl brain" and needing to remain conscious of "boy needs." I will link back to you when it's done!

  8. What a great post! As the mum of 3 boys, I like to think that my classroom is boy friendly (all my toys from home are obviously "boy toys") but it is certainly something we do need to do consciously. I really like your guns comment. My boys this year made guns and the EA and I let them do it. We often told them they were bubble guns or water guns & they were happy with that. The other K teacher in our classroom (we had an open concept classroom) would take away their guns. I really struggled with this but it's hard to contradict a colleague. I love your take on it. Thanks for reminding us to love our boys and make environments that suit their learning styles!

  9. I know that the guns that my boys were using in the classroom very quickly turned to light sabres or water guns whenever I was close by! We all play the game!


  10. This was a perfect post to remind us that we are planning the room for all of our kinders. Have you read Vivian Paley's work? She also writes about rough play which is another boy issue in today's schools.

    Liz :)

  11. I just recommended this post to my district because of this article.

    Thank you.


  12. This is a great post! My classroom naturally has a lot of the things you mention that boys need. I spent a lot of time this past year expanding my classroom library to include more books to match the interests of my boys.

    1. Thanks. I think that it is so important that we have books that our boys enjoy and want to read, so that they learn that reading is something for them and that it is enjoyable. Bet they are enjoying the new boy-friendly books you acquired for them.


  13. Hi Sandi. I love your site and find myself forwarding so many of your blogs on to my children, grandchildren and friends. Thank you for your wonderful insight. I enjoy reading these so much. Grandma Lynn ;).


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