Even as two-year-olds, girls are more independent and sociable

A study from the Stavanger Project shows that girls aged two and a half years master most everyday activities better than boys.

By: Elisabeth Rongved

Girls of two and a half years of age are more capable of feeding and dressing themselves, are better at participating in circle time in nursery school, and are out of nappies earlier than boys of the same age. This is according to a study of over 1000 nursery-school children aged 30–33 months. The researchers in the Stavanger Project, which is behind this study, looked at the extent to which girls and boys master different everyday activities. The results show that girls were more advanced in all areas studied by the researchers.

Both Norwegian and international research shows that girls have better language and social skills than boys in school and nursery school. There are few studies, however, which document how small children master everyday activities in nursery school.

"We expected to find differences, but were surprised that they were so great", says Aud Toril Meland, who together with Elsa Kaltvedt and Elin Reikerås recently published the findings in the Early Childhood Educational Journal. The Stavanger Project is a multidisciplinary, longitudinal study that is being carried out by the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger in cooperation with the city of Stavanger.

In the study, nursery school staff observed the children during the normal day. They looked at the extent to which the children take part in games and circle time, how they adapt to nursery school meal-times and other routines, whether they like to dress and undress themselves and whether they master eating and drinking without help from adults.  It became apparent that the girls were more independent with regard to dressing and undressing and that, to a greater extent, they mastered nursery school routines such as changing from one activity to another and helping younger children.

The biggest difference between boys and girls was the age at which they were out of nappies and started using the toilet. Of the two and a half-year-old girls, 21.3% were completely finished with nappies and could say when they needed to use the toilet, compared to just 7.5% of the boys. Up to 67.8% of the girls had developed an interest in using a potty or toilet compared to 42.1% of the boys.

"The girls also scored higher on participation in circle time, where singing, games that develop motor skills and activities involving discussion or narration are important. Such activities require concentration for short periods, as well as the desire and the ability to interact, something which the girls seem to be better at mastering", says Elsa Kaltvedt.

"To a large extent, social skills and everyday activities are connected with children's language comprehension, motor skills and self-regulation.  Well-developed language skills may contribute to girls being better able to express their needs and desires than boys. Children's language skills may also influence other activities, such as participating in conversation during mealtimes, dressing and undressing, and going from one activity to another", Meland explains.

The researchers believe that this is an important study as it highlights developmental differences between boys and girls, of which nursery school staff ought to be aware.

"The differences may be due to both biological expectations and the fact that different demands and expectations are required of girls than boys. In the framework plan for nursery schools, it is stated that boys and girls should have equal opportunities. Many people think that the fact that boys run, jump and climb is good for their development, but they are not necessarily better at mastering everyday activities despite being active. It is important to provide adequate support for boys. Boys should also get enjoyment from mastering everyday activities that involve both social and language skills", says Kaltvedt.

"Previous studies have shown that the behaviour and habits of girls often correspond with teachers' and nursery school teachers' preferred ideals. Girls are more frequently characterised as being responsible, cooperative, well-behaved, conscientious and diligent. Adults' behaviour and interaction with children can reflect their own attitudes to gender, thus giving different signals and expectations to boys and girls. Adults' attitudes, expectations and participation thus affect children differently, even in the early nursery school years", says Reikerås.

Ref.: Meland, Aud Torill, Kaltvedt, Elsa Helen & Reikerås, Elin (2015). Toddlers Master Everyday Activities in Kindergarten: A Gender Perspective. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal (June 2015).