Traditionally, we have seen characteristic differences in the developing motor skills of boys and girls - usually evident beginning in early childhood. Boys tend to be ahead of girls in skills that emphasize power and force. By the time boys are 5, they can jump a longer distance, throw a ball farther, and run faster. Girls, on the other hand, have better fine-motor skills as well as gross motor skills involving foot movement and good balance. So, they are better at hopping, skipping, buttoning, and zipping.
Also, traditionally, young children have been guided towards different activities, as boys or girls. A good deal of boys’ play was outside, using large muscle groups - riding bikes, climbing, and running around. Boys were much more likely to be given baseballs and footballs and then more likely to have a family member play with them using this equipment. As a result, boys could throw a ball much farther than girls and were faster runners, largely due to practicing these skills. Fine motor skills were left in the dust, for the most part. Then there was the introduction of the hook and loop strips, that made shoe-tying a thing of the past, when this very activity was such a valuable one, across multiple developmental domains.
Girls have been channeled towards dramatic play, coloring, and other indoor activities. Their small motor skills benefitted from dressing dolls, using crayons, and making things. I would venture to guess that focusing on these activities was also increasing their attention spans, while boys may have been short-changed in this area. Girls also played hopscotch, jump rope, and took dance lessons- activities that improved their balance and agility.
But, there has been a culture shift that has also meant a shift in the way physical development plays out for boys and girls. The rise in popularity of different activities in our culture has fueled these changes.
One such trigger, for boys, was the introduction of those little plastic bricks in primary colors. Now, boys had a reason to sit down and stay indoors and were using and developing the small motor skills that had been little utilized. These little bricks went from a rather basic product line to the sophisticated and complex building systems we are seeing today. They continue to increase in popularity over generations and account for a good number of activity hours. My grandson, like many other little boys, can play with these for an entire Saturday morning, non-stop. He can also tie his shoes and write his name quite legibly, whereas his daddy took a bit longer to accomplish these things. Hmmm.
The advance of technology in our culture has also brought changes. For many boys, outdoor play now takes a back seat to video games and other online activities. So, the practice with balls, running, and climbing has been traded for manipulating game controllers, keyboards, and mice… a shift from gross motor to fine motor.
What about girls? Because there is less stereotyping now than in the past, girls are getting outside more and getting dirty. They are on sports teams, and participating in activities that were once considered “for boys.” They are still dressing dolls and enjoying crafts, but they are also involved in more activities outdoors... practicing and developing gross motor skills.
What is happening, as a result of these cultural changes is a leveling out of children’s gender differences in motor skills. This could be looked at as another debate over nature vs. nurture. Yes, certainly, there are definite proclivities that are generally gender-based. But, the culture in which a child exists can elicit differences due to changing opportunities to practice and develop particular skills.
Researchers say that gender differences in development will persist throughout childhood and then become less defined. But, perhaps even these expectations will not hold true as accommodation to our changing culture continues. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!