Public space is an integral part of our daily lives. Every day we come into contact with a square, park, sidewalk, forest, playground, or shopping street. For example to move, to play, to move, to stroll, to meet, to sport or to rest. Depending on what we feel like. This freedom of choice in activities arises because these spaces are accessible to everyone. However, if you look a little further, you will see that certain places are often appropriated by certain people. This applies to adults, but certainly also to children. Several play areas are dominated by boys. Different studies show that occupational injustices arise in many play areas, because different children - especially girls - are restricted in their opportunities for play. This article is an overview of the relationships between boys and girls in public space. Based on an extensive literature review and own research we look at the causes of this gender inequality as well at the possible solutions.
Before we get into the subject a careful warning in advance: I’m aware - and research confirms this - that this dichotomy between boys and girls is somewhat precarious. Due to differences in for example age, competence, culture, education, personality, and position in the family there can be great differences between girls (and between boys). So, sex is by no means always the distinguishing factor. In addition, we shouldn’t be focusing on the biological dichotomy (males vs. females) but on gender (boyish and girlish or masculine and feminine behavior). Gender - just like childhood - is a social construct and is therefore accompanied by variation and change. However, for the sake of reading and for the purpose of this article, I write about the differences between boys and girls and take - with slight reluctance - the generalization and stereotyping that comes with it for granted. All for the sake of a higher purpose: to show that our public spaces are often designed for and used by certain type of persons and bodies.
|Girls and boys play together
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were still many families in cities with a large number of children. They often lived in a small house where they had to share the bedrooms. Those who wanted to avoid the crowds went outside or were sent outside if the parent(s) wanted a little more peace. More boys played outside than girls in those days, because girls were often constrained by domestic tasks and being entrusted with the younger family members at home (Ward, 1978; Hart, 1979). Another difference: while the boys could climb trees, get muddy in the pond and return home with their clothes torn, the girls were expected to return immaculate if they had been outside (Ward, 1978).
Girls were far less visible in the street. Some experts at that time related this to the fact that girls scored worse on tests about their visuo-spatial ability and that this is partly determined by a sex-linked recessive gene. An incorrect assumption. Research shows that it has more to do with learned behavior (nurture) than with hereditary traits (nature). The differences in spatial skills arose simply because boys were more outdoors and thus gained more environmental experience and confidence (Ward, 1978; Hart, 1979). They had every chance to explore and manipulate the public space. Boys were left much more free at that time, they went outside more often and further away. To play with friends but also to deliver newspapers, running errands or mowing lawns. The mean maximum distance boys were allowed to freely range away from their homes was more than twice that of the girls in both the younger and the older grades (Hart, 1979).
In the 1980s and 1990s we saw a significant decline in outdoor play among both boys and girls in North America and Europe. In addition to the fact that outdoor play was competing with increasingly more indoor options (larger bedrooms, more toys, computers, and more children’s programs on TV) there was a rising concern among parents about the safety of their children. Due to various incidents and media attention, concern among parents about children’s vulnerability to harassment, (sexual) assault, abduction and murder in public space increased (Valentine, 1996). The public space increasingly became a place against which children must be warned and protected (De Visscher, 2008). Besides these so-called ‘stranger dangers’ parents became also increasingly concerned that their children would come into contact with a rough and aggressively street culture that in some places was accompanied with underage drinking, drugs, vandalism and (petty) crime. In addition, due to the volume and speed of cars, there was already a fear of traffic accidents (Valentine, 1997).
As a consequence adults were and are controlling and restricting children’s use and experience of public space more and more often. Parents are increasingly opening up their homes to their children’s friends. They are also planning scheduled activities in private and safe areas in order to have more control over where their kids are and hence over their safety (Valentine, 1996; 1997; Skår & Krogh, 2009). It is striking and interesting for this article that two studies in the United Kingdom showed that the parents - with 8 to 11 year old children - did not distinguish between boys and girls. Parents perceived sons and daughters to be equally vulnerable in public space (Valentine, 1997; Brown et al., 2008).
Girls and younger children however report more fears for their personal safety in public space than boys and older children concerning ‘stranger danger’ or ‘fear of traffic’ (Valentine, 1997; Matthews, 2003). The social fear was certainly true for middle class urban and suburban girls. They spend more of their leisure time at home or in activities supervised by adults, so they had less local place knowledge and therefore less ‘escape routes’ when they were outside (Valentine, 1997).
|Fifteen boys (left) and five girls (right) play separately on a football field
The question is whether there are still differences between boys and girls when it comes to playing outside. Let's see some studies.
From 2007 through 2009, 1.450 U.S. households were interviewed by phone as part of the National Kids Survey about children’s time outdoors between the ages of 6 and 19 years (Larson et al, 2011). The percentage of boys spending two or more hours outdoors was higher than girls on both weekdays (68% vs. 57%) and weekends (81% vs. 75%). Girls were more likely than boys to spend less than one-half hour outdoors on both weekdays. If the years were compared, it turned out that girls displayed a slight decrease in time outdoors and boys a slight increase.
In Belgium a study was conducted in 1983, 2008 and 2019 in seven residential areas in and around the city of Antwerp (Meire, 2020). In 2008, girls were already slightly underrepresented at 45%, but in 2019 this had already fallen to 37% (a percentage equal to the 1983 results). There are however big differences in age. Among toddlers there is a balance between boys and girls. In the group of 6 to 8 years old 40% of the children playing outside are girls. But imbalance is particularly noticeable in the ages of 9 to 11 (only 27% girls) and from 12 to 14 years (34% girls).
Last year I did a research in the Netherlands and we also encountered significantly more boys than girls (Helleman, 2021). Two-thirds of the children playing outside were boys and only one-third were girls. We also found big differences between the ages (Figure 1). In the younger age group - from zero to eight years - the ratio between boys and girls is almost equal. However, large differences arise with age. Girls aged nine years or older are playing less in public space than their male peers. Long-term user research in the Netherlands of children in public play spaces shows similar results (Vermeulen, 2017).
Figure 1. Who plays outside according to
gender and age (in percentages and numbers)?
We also found in our research that girls were more 'supervised' than the boys (Helleman, 2021). And looking at the locations, we saw on average a nice equal distribution between boys and girls in the playgrounds (52%-48%) and in the bushes and shrubs (50%-50%), while the sports fields (92%) and lawns (82%) were dominated by boys. The most important activity for the girls were climbing, hanging or balancing. The second most important was 'doing nothing': relaxing, hanging out, sitting, watching or talking to other children. Boys were mainly engaged in ball sports.
So there is still a significant difference between boys and girls when it comes to playing outside. Not only in the amount of time, but also where they play and what activities they engage in. What are the reasons for this? We saw in the past that this was largely due to the care tasks that girls had to perform. Although this still occurs in certain families and cultures (Lammers & Reith, 2011) this is - due to women's emancipation - a less explanatory factor. But then what? Based on an extensive literature study I describe three (interrelated) reasons: 1) girl’s preferences versus the design of public spaces; 2) boys, and 3) safety issues.
Reason 1: girl’s preferences versus the design of public spaces
Although there is no conclusive evidence, there are several studies (see box 1) that show that girls generally prefer more peaceful and social play activities and prefer to play in smaller groups. Boys prefer physically active and vigorous play, engaging in rough and tumble activities (chasing, rolling, wrestling) and in team play activities (soccer, basketball). Girls stay longer in playgrounds when there is a bigger variety of play equipment. This, of course, also applies to boys, but in general boys can also enjoy themselves with only a field and a ball.
It is still unclear how these differences arise. Why do girls play differently? Does it have to do with biological differences? Is it their own preference? Is it a consequence of parental interventions in their children’s engagement with sex-appropriate activities? And/or is it peer pressure among children to be socially accepted? Nevertheless, the outcome is that we see that boys are more concerned with sports-based, active leisure and space-consuming games, while girls play is more focused on social play.
|A skate park with fairly varied users
- First of all, some girls – especially from certain cultures – are not allowed to go to places where many boys come (Lammers & Reith, 2011);
- Secondly, as we saw before, boys tend to use larger spaces for their activities, so there is less room for girls and this also creates a sense of dominance. The boys have usurped the place. These conflicts of ownership are intensified when play space is limited and when there is a lack of diverse play opportunities (Korthals Altes, 2019);
- Third, girls are also left out because of rejection, bullying, and competitive behavior. The barrier to play outside is increased even further when boys are taunting and shaming the girls. Interviews with boys in the Amsterdam playgrounds confirm the gendered exclusion: “We cannot use girls. Girls do girl things and girls are stupid” (Karsten, 2003). In a study in Ghent (Belgium), several girls (10-12 years old) indicated that if they stop around a football field, they are usually called after, whistled or looked away by the boys (De Visscher, 2008). We also see this inappropriate behavior by boys and this form of active or passive protectionism in other studies (Lloyd et al., 2008; Lammers & Reith, 2011). At an inner city primary school in Melbourne (Australia) girls identified the football and soccer pitches as spaces that boys use and girls don’t (Spark et al., 2019). The girls described that they were not directly excluded, but indirectly through feelings of incompetence, a lack of control in organizing games, and through (un)conscious behavior of the boys in which they were establishing themselves as the ‘boss’.
|Girls at a basket swing
- Make play areas big enough to facilitate play by both boys and girls. That means that the terrain for play equipment (such as slides, bars, swings, climbing structures, sand boxes, water places) should take up as much territory as the area for ball games.
- Think less in large, mono-functional play areas. Smaller places at one play space prevent girls becoming marginalized as happens in big open spaces. So, differentiate and create more defined places in a play space with different play types and play activities for all generations and for people with different skills.
- Besides playing, girls especially like to chill out. Create places and attributes where you can sit together face to face, hang out, socialize and chat are loved by many girls. That’s why a basket swing or hammock is chosen must often by girls as a place to play, sit, meet and chill.
- Girls stay longer in play areas when there is a bigger variety of play opportunities. Therefore, provide a varied play area that is diverse in color, height, surface, materials, features, activities, and attributes. This offers possibilities for play as well as viewing, seating, and chatting options.
- Loose parts, including natural materials (sticks, branches, leaves, stones), moldable materials (sand, clay, chalk, water), and man-made objects without obvious play purpose (tyres, crates, ropes) provide opportunities to explore and engage in imaginative and constructive play, which girls like.
- Another way to stimulate imagination and creativity, is by making places for dancing, moving and (making) music.
- Add and make natural elements (such as trees, bushes and water) accessible and playable. Nature often makes gender differences smaller. And perhaps even more than boys, girls are looking for adventure and places to experience, explore, investigate and use spaces for their own purposes (adaptability).
- Connect to more gender-neutral forms of play, such as climbing and building. But also in terms of sports: so rather a skate park with skate ramps and hills of different heights suitable for roller skates, stunt scooters, bicycles and skateboards than a few very high half pipes that mainly attract male skateboarders.