Connect for Children

Heidi Emberling, MA, Parenting Educator and Early Childhood Specialist

“You can’t come to my birthday party!” and Other Explorations of Girl* Power April 1, 2013

Filed under: Boys/Girls — Heidi Emberling @ 8:52 pm

Girls explore power through relationships, beginning in the older preschool years.  New friendships blossom during this time through imaginative play and common interests.  Bonds between friends deepen, even influencing the mood and emotion of a child if her friend is absent from school.  Many girls are verbal and social, preferring imaginative games that mirror real experiences such as playing “house,” “grocery store,” or “doctor’s office.”  Often, girls will take on the powerful roles they see around them: “mom,” “doctor,” or “teacher.”

As friendships form and grow, girls may begin to explore power within this new bond.  They may begin excluding others from play, to protect this deep new two-person relationship.  When common interests change, girls may find they are best friends one day, and enemies the next.  This is very confusing for us as parents and caregivers.  These new friend/enemy, or “frenemy,” relationships are hard to predict, can be hurtful, and can involve gossip and mean girl exploration.  Phrases like, “I don’t want to play with you today,” “You can’t come to my birthday party,” or “I’m not your friend anymore,” are common ways of expressing relational power.

Here are five ways to support girl play:

1) Teach acceptable ways of speaking to friends and adults.  Note the difference between disrespectful language, “I’m not playing with YOU today,” and respectful language, “Not now, maybe later.”

2) Build skills for allowing others to join in the play, rather than be excluded.  “It looks like you are playing house.  You may need a sibling, aunt, visitor, or even a pet to add to the play.  Any ideas?”

3) Discuss qualities of being a good friend. How do we show others that we are their friend?

4) Address hurtful comments through induction strategies: “How would you feel if your best friend excluded you?”  Talk about “secrets” and other socially harmful behaviors.

5) Encourage expanding the social sphere of girls.  Invite a new playmate over, join a new activity with other friends outside of school, and encourage development of new interests.

It’s important to keep social problems in perspective.  Children are exploring relational power between friends, and these dynamics may shift from week to week or even from day to day.  If your child is excluding others, it doesn’t mean she will become a bully later on.  If your child is sensitive, it doesn’t mean she will become a target in later years.  All children explore power in their own way.  For some adults, these friendship struggles may elicit painful peer memories from childhood.  If possible, remember that children are more resilient than we think and this exploration of relational power is a typical developmental process.  Our role is to listen, validate the experience, and guide them to resolve conflicts and express themselves in respectful ways.  As we teach children social skills and support their emotional resiliency, we lay a strong foundation for creating healthy relationships now and in the future.

*I use the conventional term “girl” to describe children who are exploring relational power, but boys may experience this as well.

Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist



The Energy and Enthusiasm of Preschool Boys* December 11, 2012

Filed under: Boys/Girls — Heidi Emberling @ 6:34 pm

Boy play is noisy, boisterous, physical, aggressive, and spontaneous in nature.   Dads** understand this play and may intuitively provide these outlets for their rough and tumble kids.  Research (Lamb, 2000) shows that moms are associated with food, comfort, security, and love, while dads are associated with fun, excitement, and play.  Children need exposure to both types of adult interactions.  However, most preschool environments favor women’s interaction styles, verbal and literacy activities, and socio-dramatic play.

Around 3 ½ years old, boys begin to gravitate towards superhero play.  They explore power, both external (I can fly like Superman, I am super strong like Batman), and within social relationships (good guy/bad guy scenarios).  This morality play between “good” guys and the “bad” guys is certainly not a new phenomenon.  Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and war play are all an integral part of typical boy development.  The challenge for parents and teachers is when these games include gun play.   Boys love “shooting” games.  They build shooters out of legos, blocks, pencils, or even with their fingers.  It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate this type of play, even with all the “no gun play” rules at home or in preschool.

Life and death are still very abstract concepts for preschoolers.  As boys grapple with the role of “good guy” and “bad guy,” gun play allows for a sense of power and control within that play.  One strategy is to extend the play by adding multi-player rescue or hero themes.  If two boys are shooting each other, direct them to shoot water out of the “fire hose” to save the house or building.   If the “bad guys” are going to jail, encourage them to come up with ways to get out of jail, or repair the “bad” behavior.  If there are two boys playing firefighter, add a third child who can be the ambulance driver or doctor/nurse at the hospital.

Here are five ways to support the active play of young boys:

1) Provide space and time for big, outdoor physical activity

2) Boys need more space!  Let them spread out on the floor.

3) Provide outdoor projects, building, gardening, and outdoor games

4) Provide hands-on learning, rather than verbal instruction

5) Create safe indoor spaces for rough and tumble play (gym mats, nerf balls)

Boys bring spontaneous, wild fun into any environment.  As parents and teachers, we need to find ways to respect and honor boys’ play ideas and contributions.  In this way, we can support boys as they build social skills, increase their self-confidence, and become active contributors to their own learning.

*I use the conventional term “boys” to describe high energy, rough and tumble play, but there are girls who may also share these qualities.

**I use the conventional term “dads” to describe more physical, exciting play, but there are moms who may also play this way with their child.

Additional Reading:

The War Play Dilemma, by Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Heidi Emberling, MA