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Are Cultural Changes Changing Child Development?

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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Child Development

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!

Kids playing soccer


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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

  • Guest
    Jeanne Veich Monday, 25 July 2016

    Very interesting and accurate to what we are seeing out in the field! Good read!

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Guest Friday, 22 February 2019