Girls, Boys and the Computer in the Kindergarten
Paper for Forum on Children's Culture. European Conference.
The Royal Danish School of Educational Studies. Copenhagen 1997.
I would like to start this paper with a brief presentation of
the research project I am currently working on. The title is "Children's
Computer Culture", and this should already make it clear
that my project is not mainly about how important it is for children
to use computers in school or at home. Nor is it about how important
it is for children to learn how to use modern technology. That
aspect of the matter is of course important, and in recent years
there have been innumerable studies in the area.
My interest in the subject of children and computers focuses
on another, often neglected side of the subject: children's own
use of the computer. As we know children and the young have long
since adopted the computer as a toy. My project aims to survey
children's use of the computer, to study how the computer medium
affects and is absorbed in the existing culture of children, and
to discover the significance of the computer for children's ways
of playing and interacting.
In an earlier phase of the project I studied computer culture
among children aged 7-14. I will not go into more detail about
that today, but will briefly state that it quickly became clear
to me that the prejudices that many adults have as regards computer
games in particular were unjustified. Computer games are for example
rarely an asocial or individual activity. They rarely place a
child alone in front of a computer screen. On the contrary they
are very much a social activity. Children play computer games
together. They swap games, and they swap tips and tricks for the
games. One could say that the computer has become part of children's
play culture and that it has done so very much on this play culture's
own terms. In that sense the computer is "The Children's
Machine", as the title of a book by Seymour Papert suggests.
As part of my project I carried out some studies in kindergartens.
In Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia the computer is still a
rarity in kindergartens, for pedagogical reasons. Danish kindergarten
teachers are not exactly enthusiastic supporters of modern technology.
In fact it was only possible to find one kindergarten which had
owned a computer for a long time, and where the children also
had free access to it as to other toys. On the other hand it was
easy to find kindergartens where it was possible to study what
children made of a computer when it was a brand new phenomenon.
It is primarily this I have studied. In practice the study took
the form that two computers were installed in the kindergartens.
The children were given a very brief introduction to the programs
used, and then the computers were in principle left to the children
It is probably necessary to point out here that Danish kindergartens
are different from those familiar in most parts of the world.
The children are in kindergarten from the age of 3 until they
are 5-6. Danish kindergartens are pre-school in the most literal
sense. There is no formal teaching or training and the children
do not, for example, learn to read. This does not happen until
the children go to school when they are about 5-6. This is not
due to a lack of knowledge or resources, but is a very deliberate
pedagogical choice, based on a belief that formal education does
not further the development of the youngest children. Instead
an effort is made to strengthen the artistic and creative sides
of the children's development by arranging informal activities
like drawing, music, theater, reading aloud and to a great extent
also free play which the children themselves organize. There is
relatively great emphasis on the children learning to control
themselves in their social relations.
Coming back to my study, for a period of three months the children's
activities with the computers were closely observed by means of
regular video recordings which have subsequently been analyzed.
The main emphasis in these analyses was on the children's own
An analysis of the significance and influence of the computer
might have its natural point of departure in the computer itself
as a medium and in the structure and content of the individual
computer programs. These are of course important aspects of the
matter, but there is a definite risk in such an approach: today
the computer has a quite special status for us, and not least
for that reason we have a lot of notions about how the computer
affects children and the young. In experimental projects and research
we often assume uncritically that the computer has some particular
effect which we then set about demonstrating. These notions, which
have their background in a general but often unconscious assumption
in educational thinking that knowledge comes to the children from
the outside (in the case of the media often as "impressions"
or "imprinting"), make it difficult to see that the
computer perhaps does not constitute a special factor of influence.
When we concentrate our attention on what the computer does to
the children, it obscures the fact that children often do things
to the computers which lie outside the scope of our general notions.
I found one of the best examples of this in a book from 1980 where
Levin and Karev describe how two boys use a computer game in a
rather unconventional way.
The boys had a picture with a lot of points on the screen. They
carefully moved the cursor from one point to another. Then they
ran from the living room into their room, where they played for
a while. After this they ran back to the computer and carefully
moved the cursor over to a new point and ran back to their room.
They repeated the procedure several times. Asked what on earth
they were doing, they explained patiently that they were playing
"Star Trek" with the computer as the control panel in
the control room. They were warping from planet to planet and
beaming down to explore the planets (their room).
The following two examples are taken from my own study:
Tobias, aged 3, is seated alone at the computer with the program
"Millie's Math House". This program, of the "edutainment"
type, is divided into several rooms with different tasks. On
the screen is the "shoe shop", where there are three
figures of different sizes, and the idea is to give the figures
shoes of the right size, so you can learn something about size
relationships. Tobias, who is new to the kindergarten and does
not know much about computers, clicks around on the screen with
the mouse. The girl Line (aged 4½) comes by with a doll
in her arms. She sits beside Tobias, looks on and says after
a while: - The big one's the daddy, isn't he? Tobias doesn't
really answer, but he doesn't protest either. Line takes the
mouse. - The little one's the baby (= the child in a role-playing
game), that one's the mummy (she points on the screen with her
finger). Then she starts a typical role-playing game.
The next example:
Two five-year-old boys are playing a game of the Space Invaders
type on an oldish computer. With the cursor keys they can move
a figure round the screen which mainly consists of small and
large dots and lines. They are hunted by the "invaders",
but the tempo is moderate. They take it very easy, chatting
a little about what they have to do. At one point they are cornered
and have difficulty getting out. The boy with the cursor keys
- Stuff it, we'll take a taxi!!
- Yeehh! We'll take a taxi, taxi...
They move the figure to one of the big dots on the screen, where
it disappears and pops up somewhere else.
Connoisseurs of Space Invaders games probably wouldn't use the
word "taxi", but "teleport"; but "taxi"
is a fine name for it: you go in one place to come out somewhere
quite different (incidentally, Danish children are not familiar
with TV series like Star Trek).
These examples could of course be viewed as children's "misinterpretations"
of the programs and thus as an indication of a shortcoming. But
such an interpretation views the situation from the outside, and
attributes intentions to the children that the program or the
observer has. Viewed in the context formed by the children's everyday
life with one another in the kindergarten (play culture) the "misinterpretations"
are not mistakes, but correct and productive. They establish a
basis for creating games, and it is clear that the children themselves
supply the imagination and the stories. Playing with the computer
programs is thus not one-way communication, but an interactive
The examples also demonstrate that computer programs are materials
that can take on many different functions in play. It is not particularly
surprising that computer programs are used this way. The same
thing happens with other materials. It can only be surprising
if we expect the computer to be something different and special.
This does not mean we should forget that the computer is a special
kind of material which like all other materials of course has
its own nature and logic; but the result of its influence cannot
simply be read off from the material. It depends on the context.
It is clear from the study that the children are little influenced
by the general adult views of what a computer is and what it is
used for. In other words the machine is not embedded in a value
system which delimits and determines the actions the children
can perform with it. The computer is without a ready-made context
for the children, and it has the character of a brand new kind
of material to be explored not only for the potential activities
the programs formally and directly offer, but just as much for
its potential as part of the play in the kindergarten. I would
like to illustrate this with an example.
Exploration and play
During the study period the children developed a store of knowledge
and competence related to the computer. In some cases knowledge
was taken from outside the group, for example from older brothers
and sisters and parents, but much was developed by the children
together when they explored the potential of the computer and
programs. However, this did not take the form of a goal-oriented
learning process, but as a mixture of exploration and play, as
in this example.
Hey, they're kissing...
Two five-year-old boys, Thomas and Johan, are seated one morning
at the computer. For the first time they are alone exploring the
drawing program KidPix, which they have seen two six-year-olds
using earlier in the morning. They have seen two functions used
that they consider exciting: a function that clears the screen,
which in KidPix is a "bomb", which makes the screen
explode in various ways; and a function that allows them to choose
a number of standard clips with figures like animals, people,
faces, cars, trains etc.
Thomas and Johan spend a quarter of an hour learning about the
program and among other things use the "bomb" quite
a lot. Then the observer intervenes and shows them how to make
the clips bigger, and this intrigues them. They begin playing
with the figures they find in the clips¾for example making
animals sounds and making up an ultra-short story about the figures:
the dinosaur roars at a cat, which answers with a weak, scared
They carry on this way, jumping from subject to subject. Only
when they reach the clips with people in them do they stick to
- That there, that's the mummy and the daddy, that's the big
brother, that's the baby. He's asleep, says Thomas.
- Yes, says Johan.
Just after this they find a television, which they insert. They
find two face-like clips, which they place opposite each other.
- Hey, they're kissing! says Thomas.
- Yes! says Johan. Both laugh.
- The girl, she's kissing the boy on the lips, isn't she?
Thomas moves the figures.
- Look at that now, now they can't kiss each other, he says.
A little later they use the clip function to put a cup on the
- That's their coffee, isn't it, says Thomas.
- Yes, replies Johan and makes slurping sounds.
They continue playing for over half an hour, interrupting it sometimes
by trying out new functions and clips.
It is typical in such a mixture of exploration and experiment,
as well as fun and games, that the children develop a knowledge
of the programs as such. This is not goal-oriented work, but play,
and it is the rule more than the exception that the children fluctuate
back and forth between what could be called exploration and what
could be called pure play. It is characteristic of this "computer
play" that it is productive, in the sense that the children
use their imagination and produce games and "stories",
which is typical of this age, when role-playing games and the
play of the imagination dominate play culture. So these are not
construction games, manipulation games or pure experiments with
the objects on the screen. Construction, manipulation, experiment
and problem-solving are all present during the game, but they
are subordinate to creating play or a "playing space"
The computer and the program supply a framework and often also
a kind of draft for the play theme, while the children flesh out
this framework together and give the computer a role in the play.
However, it is worth noting that the program only to a small extent
determines the content of the playing activity. It is the children
themselves who in the end define the space and the content of
the play, and they often do so irrespective of the explicit aims
of the program. KidPix is a drawing program, but it is not used
directly for drawing.
This way of using materials in play is similar to Sutton-Smith's
results with toys. It does not control children's play and imagination,
but: "Rather, the toys are transformed by the experienced
players to suit their own imaginative convenience. The toys are
an agency for the imagination; they do not make the imagination
their victim as is implied by much intellectual prejudice."
It is incidentally typical that the children start by acquiring
a few basic skills in operating the programs (e.g. clipping figures
in KidPix), and then go on to use these skills in a playful way.
We can say that the skills are a kind of "formulae"
with which the children improvise.
As mentioned earlier, the way the programs are used can be interpreted
as "incorrect" use, viewed from the outside. In the
context of play culture, though, the situation is different. The
children explore the programs, not with the aim of simply familiarizing
themselves with them, but with play as the ultimate goal. While
from the outside one first and foremost sees that they acquire
skills in operating a program and at the same time in operating
the computer as such, there is also a more latent acquisition
of the computer, as an integrated part of social interrelations
and of the play culture of the kindergarten. The themes and content
of the computer play are things the children bring with them from
other types of play, and they superimpose them on the programs.
One could claim that they are primarily trying out the potential
of the computer as part of the play which is traditional in the
kindergarten, for example Daddy, Mummy, and Baby games. To put
it differently, they sit down at the computer and explore KidPix
in order to extract the play potential from the program, and this
way they acquire the computer skills by integrating them in the
existing play culture.
The computer is thus not passively received by the children,
nor is this simply a matter of "decoding". There is
an active processing of the computer and programs, which transforms
them and adapts them to the children's play universe. And only
here in the context of play does the computer take on its true
role and its significance. This is of course not something exclusive
to the computer. Just think about a tricycle in the kindergarten.
It is not a means of transport for the children, but a tool or
instrument of play.
One could justifiably claim that this conclusion is obvious and
nothing surprising. I will gladly concede that. But when it comes
to computers and modern technology and new media on the whole
it is my experience that it is important to demonstrate that these
media do not have a one-sided effect that they force on the recipients.
The recipients/the children are not passive victims of the manipulation
of the media.
What I have said does not meant that we can claim the computer
has no influence on the children's play. The computer for example
organizes their relations in a particular way. It is stationary,
so they cannot run around, cannot get away from other children
or from the adults, and in reality there is only room for two
in front of the screen, while other children (for there is often
a small group around the computer) more have the role of spectators,
which does not necessarily mean they are passively involved. In
this sense the computer and the computer programs, like other
media, form a setting that initiates certain activities and sets
limits to what the children can do. It would take a more detailed
analysis of the children's play with the computer to find these
limits, but this has not been the aim of the first part of my
Girls, boys and computers
There are differences between girls and boys when it comes to
interest in computers, and this too emerged from my studies. It
is generally experienced that the boys happily and energetically
plunge into playing with the computer while the girls are more
reserved about it. This difference is already clear at the pre-school
age, when the gender roles play an important part in the "computer
culture" the children develop.
The girls' and boys' different kinds of interest in the computer
are usually explained in terms of the computer itself for example
by saying that the computer is logical, rational and based on
mathematical thinking. There may certainly be some truth in this,
but it is only one side of the issue which does not allow for
the context of which the computer forms a part. The reason is
so to speak located in the machine.
As we have seen the computer is a phenomenon which only has its
role and significance definitively established in its reception,
when it is adopted and formed by the children in their existing
play culture. The play culture thus naturally plays a major role
in their interest.
A number of cultural studies have dealt with the way gender roles
and gender differences are expressed in children's play culture.
All these studies show that, even at pre-school age, there are
clear gender differences. Children may not yet have a fully developed
gender identity, but they do have a clear awareness of gender
differences. This awareness is expressed in the organization of
play inasmuch as girls mainly play with girls, while boys play
with boys and in the differences in the content and form of the
In a now classic Scandinavian study of gender differences in
children's play at pre-school ages from 1969 Berentzen demonstrated
that the categories "boy" and "girl" form
basic reference points for children's organization of play. These
reference points are essential to the children's evaluation of
games, of toys, of one another etc.
Berentzen also demonstrated that the boys organize their relations
differently from the girls. The boys have bigger play groups and
they are usually hierarchically structured. The boys' play groups
are also relatively open to the outside they are more prepared
to admit new members to the group without much argument.
The girls' play groups are smaller and they are often extremely
exclusive. The girls organize their play and relations in small
groups of two or three, and for the girls it is a crucial issue
whether one has or does not have somebody to be with. They spend
a relatively large part of their time confirming or denying who
is a member of the girls' group and who is outside. Treaties and
alliances play a very important role as early as the start of
the kindergarten age.
These differences are general features, not absolute. Although
there are differences in the play culture of boys and girls, they
can also share a number of activities, especially those organized
by the adults; but they also play across genders.
Berentzen carried out his study at the end of the sixties. Since
then there have been changes in the gender categories in society
in general, and one might expect this to have some effect on the
relations of the children. But later studies do not seem to show
that there have been any fundamental changes. Gender differences
still play a very important role, although there has been some
softening of the boundaries for example it is no longer so "forbidden"
to play across gender boundaries. The Norwegian Møklebust
(1987), for example, also finds clear gender divisions and sees
the same traits in the play groups as Berentzen.
Another feature that is important in relation to computers is
that the boys are more likely to organize around competitive-type
play and game activities, while girls' play could be said to be
more spontaneous, imaginative and free of structures and rules.
In their play and games it is typical that they take turns. The
girls, as mentioned above, are also often grouped in pair relationships
rather than in formalized play and games, and they are involved
as much in conversations as in actual play.
My colleague Anne Scott Sørensen of Odense University
groups the differences in the girls' and boys' culture in the
following (from Anne Scott Sørensen, 1992) (each paragraph
under "girl culture" should be compared with each paragraph
under "boy culture"):
Clusters of girlfriend
dyads and triads
Informal, flat structure
Hidden or random
(relations, people and situations)
being loved/not being loved
Dreams of metamorphosis
and beauty aesthetic
Gang culture and
Formal, hierarchic structure
Visible, rule-governed organization patterns
Open, changing relations
doing well/not doing well
Dreams of conquest
and victory aesthetic
According to Anne Scott Sørensen the boys' groups are
characteristically "action-oriented interest groups".
Their activities are action-oriented, their motives are often
instrumental and their criteria are objective and principle-governed.
Girls' groups on the other hand are dominated by a concern with
the group as such the roles, the relations etc. As a parallel
to this Møklebust states that for the boys it is important
to do something together, while for the girls it is important
to be together.
The gender research indicates that gender is extremely important,
even at pre-school age, when girls and boys already very much
have their own play cultures, each with its own content and goals;
so there are also differences in what it is in the play that is
interesting and meaningful to them.
Research on the subjects girls, boys and computers generally
arrives at the conclusion that there are differences in girls'
and boys' interest in and attitude to the computer and not least
in their confidence in their own abilities in that respect. The
differences are apparently established in connection with the
incipient establishment of the gender roles at the age of 3-4,
and they are relatively firmly rooted by the beginning of school
age. There are of course many complex explanations of what it
is that creates these differences. But experiments and studies
with computers have for example been done since the latter half
of the eighties, when the software was generally more technically-oriented
than today (towards programming for example). To this very day
it is a widespread, but only partially correct prejudice that
the computer is "technological" or "thinks mathematically".
Software development has meant that there are many programs whose
content also appeals to the girls (drawing programs, word processing
etc.). At the same time the computer has become easier to operate,
so it no longer requires technical interest and insight.
All the same the computer is still very much regarded as "masculine"
by both men and women, boys and girls. This is probably one of
the most important reasons why girls do not take an interest in
it. The kinds of software or perhaps even more so knowledge of
the kinds of software that exist are of course part of the issue,
but not the whole explanation. Just as important is the perception
of the computer or, in other words, the meaning it is assigned
in our culture and in the children's play culture.
As Berentzen's studies showed, girls and boys organize their
relations and games around the "boyish" and the "girlish".
The perception of the computer as a "masculine" machine,
which dominates our culture at present, means in other words that
it is first and foremost a "boys' toy". When the machine
enters into play culture as such, the "boyish" image
will, all other things being equal, be reinforced. This is of
course also of great importance in teaching situations, where
the perceptions the children take with them from their play culture
and elsewhere cannot simply be suspended. Girls and boys have
different forms of cooperation and interests, and they focus on
different areas the objectively oriented as opposed to the togetherness-oriented,
for example. There exist strong boy and girl cultures which are
created and maintained by the children themselves, which are passed
down from child generation to child generation, and which cannot
be stamped out by education.
The boy and girl cultures are extraordinarily important in the
life of children from pre-school age on, and they are also of
great importance for the way the computer is perceived. The reason
for the girls' lack of interest should perhaps be sought more
here than in the computer as such or in the software. In other
words, the reasons for the gender differences in relation to the
computer should perhaps be sought in the way the children view
the computer, not in the way adults view them. It is a question
of what the children make of it, not what the teachers, educationalists
or parents make of it, although it is of course also important
which perception the adults pass on to the children.
Girls, boys and the computer in the kindergarten
It will hardly come as a surprise that it was first and foremost
the boys in the kindergartens who adopted the computer in the
way I have described here. In general the study confirms the differences
that gender research has demonstrated. There are thus differences
in the girls' and the boys' approach to the computer, and similarly
they organize their relations around the machine differently.
The older children (aged 5-6) for example rarely gather round
the computer across gender boundaries. The younger children (aged
3-4) do so to a greater extent, but here too there is some gender
But even on the occasions when boys and girls are together around
the computer, it is not necessarily a true shared activity. Often
it is just a matter of the two genders happening to bump into
one another in front of the screen, and they each have their own
project and way of using the computer. The following example indicates
It is the first day with a computer in the kindergarten, and
for a couple of hours in the morning a real crowd of children
has been observing the events on the screen with curiosity. Some
time into the forenoon the first curiosity has abated, and there
are five boys and one girl (aged 6) left. Morten (aged 4) has
the mouse and is in progress with Millie's Math House. On the
screen Morten has the "Shoe Shop", where the task is
to put the right sizes of shoes on three figures of different
A couple of the older boys of six are the most active participants.
They keep urging Morten to put the wrong sizes of shoes on the
figures, and when he does so the whole group is greatly amused.
The type of play where the point is to do something wrong in the
program is something the children often play later. They call
it "playing silly".
After about ten minutes it is the turn of the girl to operate
the mouse. She too is urged to put the wrong shoes on the figures,
but she won't. Se wants to do it "right", to solve the
problem, and despite all the urging she chooses the correct shoes.
The boys quickly lose interest in what is happening on the screen.
They try for a while to tease the girl, but stop when it has no
effect. Instead they begin to play and fight a little behind the
girl's back. All her attention is on the screen, where she is
concentrating on trying the different shoes on the figures not
for size, for that is easy enough for her, but for type and color.
When she wants to change rooms in the program, the boys stop
their playing and turn their attention to the screen, while trying
to persuade the girl. several of them urge her:
- Helicopter, helicopter.... That's the only one we haven't tried.
This situation is typical: the girl does the "right"
thing while the boys experiment and have nothing against crossing
the limits. The girl is one of the few girls in this kindergarten
who is strong enough to stay seated in the group so she can try
out the computer, but she is not interested in joining in the
joint project of the boys, which is about exploring Millie's Math
House, preferably all its corners and byways (this is almost archetypal
for boys, and many people will probably recognize the same thing
from men who find themselves in front of a computer with a new
program or game...).
On the other hand the girl in the example arouses no interest
from the boys when it comes to the appearance or color of the
shoes and whether they suit or match the figures. This aesthetic
aspect does not interest the group of boys. There are thus crucial
differences in the way girls and boys approach the computer, not
least differences in the "project" they have with the
In other words, girls and boys each have their own agenda in
front of the computer in the kindergartens, and this pattern confirms
the above-mentioned research on gender and on play culture. The
boys apparently experiment most and are interested in exploring
the programs. In this connection, as we have seen, they take great
pleasure in deliberately doing things wrong. The girls are more
likely to follow the instructions of the programme and they take
an interest in the aesthetic aspect, in the appearance, in the
colors and shapes.
I must emphasize that I am drawing a very rough picture of the
gender differences and have chosen an example that shows the difference
clearly. In other situations it is less clear, but the tendency
is there. There are differences between what boys and girls try
to get from the computer programs. One does not have to observe
the children's use of computers very long to realize that it is
to a much greater extent a "play space" for the boys
than for the girls. The boys are dominant in front of the computer,
and it is very much their machine. They are dominant because they
are more interested in the computer than the girls are. They are
more persistent and at first glance more creative in their use
of it. In short, it is much more interesting for them to use it,
and when that is true, it leads to a self-reinforcing process.
On the one hand they monopolize the machine, on the other they
know more about the programs because they spend more time with
them and because the computer plays a greater role in the boys'
culture. So they also get more playing potential out of it. The
computer in other words becomes mainly a toy for the boys, but
this is far from saying that the girls are not interested (as
is the case for example with weapons, which the girls rarely touch).
It must be emphasized that the dominance of the boys is reinforced
by the facts that computers are scarce in the kindergartens. This
means that it can be difficult for two or three girls to have
the computer to themselves, and may be another reason why the
girls do not use the machine to the same extent as the boys. For
the boys, however, this does not mean so much. Their play groups
can easily be bigger, and the groups often include both older
and younger boys. The play groups leave room for the small boys,
and this means that competencies flow easily from the older to
the younger ones.
There can be no doubt that the content of the programs, too,
is significant for the differences in the interests of the two
genders, and that the great bulk of software for children today
gives the boys the best potential for play and experiment. This
is also true of the edutainment programs; whatever their content,
they at least also offer the potential for doing things wrong
(and it is perhaps typical of the programs that this is what gives
the children the greatest pleasure....). However, I have tried
to emphasize that the software is not the only and not the all-important
factor. In this context it is crucial that we do not consider
the computer in isolation from the context in which the children
use it. The computer can no more be viewed outside the play culture
than any other media or toys. As for the gender differences, it
is not unimportant that there exists an informal computer culture
or game culture among boys, which includes both schoolchildren
and pre-schoolers. This computer culture is an integral part of
the children's play culture, which as we know is very much divided
into a girl and a boy culture.
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Associate professor, Ph.d.
The Danish University of Education
Department of Educational Anthropology
Tlf: 3969 6633
Fax: 3969 0081