• Educating Gender

Moving at the Speed of Work and Play


Dolls and Blocks and Dress Up Closets and Action Figures are for play. Desks and Pens and Books and Paper are for work. Sitting at a desk is definitely for work. What about sitting on a rug? Or sitting on your friend? Standing? Could be play, unless the teacher is telling you to sit down, then it’s work. Running? Definitely play. When the teacher tells you what to do, that’s definitely work. When a teacher puts a bunch of random stuff on a table (glue paper, markers, rulers...etc) and then walks away, that’s play.

One school year, I was “invited” down to a kindergarten classroom because a 5 year old boy was not being cooperative. It was deemed by the teacher to be a disciplinary issue that needed the attention of the principal. The student refused to join the other students at the desks, would not follow the directions for instructions, and was either standing or walking around or lying on the rug all day. This was going on for a number of days now. When I arrived in the classroom, I found that the student was, standing, walking, and lying on the rug. What the teacher failed to tell me was that the student was standing and reading, walking and reading, and lying on the rug and reading.

When the teacher tells you what to do, that’s definitely work. When a teacher puts a bunch of random stuff on a table (glue paper, markers, rulers...etc) and then walks away, that’s play.

In Vivian Gussin Paley’s brilliant Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner, students are left to believe a truth about school, regardless of gender: School is when the teacher is telling or showing you how to do something. And, the corollary to that rule is that those moments are not play. “The children are in agreement. Whatever involves or creates a mess is play.”*(See Source Below) This reality does not just impact schools, but it also impacts students and how they interact inside of relationships, work, home and family life throughout their lives. This binary construction between work and play is not necessarily inevitable, but a choice teachers and schools make in terms of how we construct learning experiences for students. 

Gender associations create impact with how students begin parsing out this distinction between work and play. Girls, for the most part, develop the toolkit of fine motor skills earlier, enabling them to feel the gratification of accomplishing teacher directed projects and assignments earlier. They still see this activity as work and “school”, but are more willing to participate because there is a sense of growing competency and a reinforced positive feedback loop. 

Boys experience much greater levels of frustration. Gussin Paley observes, “The only boys who remain at the tables after the initial exploratory period are the few whose coordination is exceptional and who receive instant gratification. For the rest, the rewards do not come quickly enough...They leave the table for the best of reasons: They are not ready”.** In other words, the way we construct school can create many more negative associations very early on with boys in school, as early as 3 years old. This binary of work-and-play then seeps into the collective way that young boys interact with each other and the adults who must guide them and work with them inside and outside of school.


“He needs to go out and run. He’s a boy…”


“He just can’t sit for long periods of time…”


And my personal favorite: “Boys are more physical. They communicate more with their bodies…”

Girls, for the most part, develop the toolkit of fine motor skills earlier, enabling them to feel the gratification of accomplishing teacher directed projects and assignments earlier.

Strong, creative intervention can make a difference throughout students’ K-12 experiences, (for both boys and girls) and can give them insight into how what they thought was work is actually play. Curricula which emphasize choice and leave students with open ended approaches to learning skills can have a significant impact. Not all students want to learn how to make checkerboard placemats. Leaving students with the basic learning principles rather than a previously conceived end result for projects can allow students to get “lost” in their learning. Sitting at a desk can be experienced just like play. Perhaps then we can also figure out a way where standing, walking, and running can also feel like learning.


**Paley, G. V. Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. 1984. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

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