When my daughter Josephine was a preschooler, I bought her a Hot Wheels set, not because she asked for it, but because I wanted to make sure the good times of car play were at her fingertips, just in case. Sure, she played with it when I played with her, but I only recall her twice playing Hot Wheels when I wasn't involved. One of those times was when she got a bee in her bonnet about inviting Cyrus over for a play date. She spent the better part of two hours watching him drive the cars around the track, occasionally looking at me and shaking her head.
The other time she "chose" to play Hot Wheels was during a vacation to Lopez Island where our toy selection was dramatically limited. She and her friend Elly found a quite corner of the living room in the house we were renting for the week and set up shop. I was a proud, modern daddy, feeling like I'd finally broken the strangle-hold society's gender stereotyping had on these little girls. See? If given the chance, girls can enjoy cars too. I was later to discover that while the girls were indeed playing with cars, the game that had them engrossed was one in which the various cars were getting married and setting up "house" under the raised portions of the track. In other words, in the absence of dolls, the cars were being used as stand-ins.
At the time, the prevailing psychological explanation for why boys play with cars and girls play with dolls was that we had consciously and unconsciously socialized our kids into these gender specific preferences. And while I'm convinced that there is still a certain kind of reinforcing truth to that, scientists are starting to conclude that some of it is hardwired. Now I can understand why even vervet and rhesus monkey females might demonstrate a preference for playing with dolls, after all they're surrogate babies, and bearing newborns is part of the definition of "female" in all species, but why in the world do the male monkeys, just like human boys, show a preference for wheeled vehicles? Weird, but true, and no one knows why.
This coming school year is my final year teaching the "boy bubble" that has been passing through our preschool these past 3 years. All eight of my 4-year-old students are boys. When they first joined us as 2-year-olds I had to donate all of Josephine's old, barely used, Hot Wheels to the school so that we had enough to go around. And that meant enough of the small cars so that each of the boys could hold a car in each hand. Even at that age, there was competition over who got to hold which car and that's mostly what they did with the cars in class, carry them around in their fists like comfort items.
It really bugged me, too, the way those damn cars were coming to dominate the classroom. If left to their own devices, that's all some of the boys did. It wasn't all the boys all the time, of course, but at any given moment, when cars were available, there would be 4 or 5 of them vying over who got to hold that day's "special" car. I tried to limit access to the cars, only breaking them out once in awhile, but there were a couple boys who really only seemed capable of feeling comfortable in class with a car in each hand. And once I got cars out to comfort one boy, the others would turn away from the blocks, put down their paint brushes, or walk away from the sensory table to demand cars of their own. Then they would just walk around with them.
Looking back on this time I'm struck by the fact that I didn't think twice about the 2-year-old girls spending their days in what we call the drama area, caring for babies and baking play dough cakes and cookies. I recognized, just as I had with the cars, that this was a comfort-building type of play. I knew that these girls might not ever leave the dolls behind entirely, but eventually, as they grew more confident in the classroom they would branch out into art, manipulatives, construction, and sensory play. I knew this was true because while there were 2-year-old girls who played with our dolls almost every day, the 4-year-olds barely touched the basket of babies that is always available.
Since I'd recognized a parallel between dolls and cars, why was it then that I limited access to the cars but not the dolls? Why wasn't there a basket of cars right there next to the basket of dolls? Why did it feel so natural to me to comfort an upset girl with a doll, while it felt like a failure when I had to resort to a car to comfort a boy? Why did I look at cars as a distraction and dolls as a cornerstone of the classroom?
This summer I gave up on controlling a collection of small vehicles. They are now scattered around the outdoor classroom, just another aspect of the loose parts that pave the ground. It's not only boys who pick them up and incorporate them into their play any more than the workbench is only for the boys . . .
. . . or the mud pie kitchen is only for girls . . .
. . . but there are undeniable tendencies no matter how much we want to avoid gender stereotyping. And we should all still strive for that.
We will have a basket of cars in our classroom every day this year. It probably won't be a collection of unique makes and models as we find with Hot Wheels. No, these will be more generic cars, just like we tend to have generic baby dolls, because having one or two special ones, I think, is what leads to the competition. I'm working on the theory that it is the vying, not the cars themselves, that I find distracting.
Sometimes I'm a slow learner, but at least I'm still a learner.