Girls, Boys and the Computer in the Kindergarten

Carsten Jessen

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 themselves.

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 interaction.

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 says:
- 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 process.

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 kitten-like voice.

They carry on this way, jumping from subject to subject. Only when they reach the clips with people in them do they stick to one subject:

- 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?
- Yep.
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 screen:

- 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.

Computer play

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" together.

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." (Sutton-Smith 1986).

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 studies.

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 play.

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"):

Girl culture

Clusters of girlfriend
dyads and triads

Shared identity
recognition, confirmation)

Informal, flat structure

Hidden or random
organization patterns

Exclusive relations

Intimacy qualities
(relations, people and situations)

phatic communication

Existential theme:
being loved/not being loved

Dreams of metamorphosis
and beauty aesthetic

Boy culture

Gang culture and
group membership

Shared interests
approval, admiration)

Formal, hierarchic structure

Visible, rule-governed organization patterns

Open, changing relations

Performance qualities
(actions, facts)

emphatic communication

Existential theme:
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 division.

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 typical differences.

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 sizes.

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 machine.

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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Jessen, Carsten: Computeren i børns kultur. Tidsskrift for Børne- og Ungdomskultur 29/93

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Mouritsen, Flemming: Children's Culture - Play Culture. In Hening Bentzen (ed): Forum on Children's Culture. The Royal Danish School of Educational Studies. Copenhagen 1997.

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Papert, Seymour: The Children's Maschine. N.Y. 1993.

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Sørensen, Anne Scott: Kønnets kultur. Tidsskrift for Børne- og Ungdomskultur nr. 23, 1992.

Carsten Jessen
Associate professor, Ph.d.
The Danish University of Education
Department of Educational Anthropology
Emdrupvej 101
DK-2400 Copenhagen
Tlf: 3969 6633
Fax: 3969 0081