When Jean Piaget authored The Moral Judgment of the Child, he may not have considered the revolutionary implications of his work, which focused on what most considered to be mere “child’s play.” Piaget’s work and its progeny have furthered our understanding of the way specific forms of play impact not only moral development in children but also pure physical development in the form of sensory and motor skill function. What emerges from Piaget’s work is a means of identifying how and why motor skills evolve in children as they do.
Once Piaget began exploring the way boys gravitated toward marbles as playthings, he recognized that boys used the marbles as tools by which to orchestrate often complex rule systems by which to govern their games. In other words, the boys were not so much playing with marbles as they were using them to understand their fellows’ motor and cognition skills. In evaluating games that girls preferred to marbles, Piaget found that girls did not enjoy the complex rule-oriented functioning of the boy-oriented marbles games and also did not enjoy the hand-eye coordination entailed in such games. Piaget had thus identified an extent to which the community of male children preferred or at least were amenable to assessment-centered play exercises (Darling-Hammond, 2005). In playing with marbles, boys were also engaging in a kind of motor skill development assessment.
Girls, however, were found to prefer more indirect forms of assessment, which paradoxically took the form of games in which they would compete against each other, such as hopscotch, but which required less intensified forms of movement and certainly less hand-eye coordination. Given this, Piaget was able to determine that from an early age, boys and girls became conditioned through the games they played, both socially and cognitively. Accordingly, boys were conditioned to judge objects in motion from a very early age, while girls were not so conditioned. How the highly complex rule structure, which was attached to these games by boys, functioned was to engrain the play experiences in the boys’ memory, which explains why today’s children are heavily encouraged and even expected to develop new knowledge based on their experiential learning and past experiences (Kort and Reilly, 2002). In so doing, boys learn more quickly than do girls the value of model-based reasoning and the way such reasoning intersects the cognitive and the motor-based.
In ancient times, the realm of knowledge and comprehension was reserved only for those who had how to acquire it and, as a result, only these privileged children were granted access to sources of motor and cognitive development. As a result, motor skills became restricted in scope and those children who wished to keep up with their more privileged peers were forced to discover other means of acquiring the skills necessary to excel in life (Gredler, 2005). One such means of acquiring this critical skill and developing along with the privileged set was played and through Piaget’s work, it becomes clear that playtime for boys, if not for girls, accounts for the enhanced manner in which boys perceive objects in motion with an increased perceptiveness. Plato, for example, posited that reasoning was acquired via the cultivation of ideas, which required the strictest mental discipline (Gould & Mulvaney, 2007). In Piaget’s work, we see in boys an increased extent to which they are willing to engage in play for both improving mental discipline and developing higher motor functioning.
Today, the evolution of the playtime focuses of boys relative to girls is best gleaned from engagement in modern video games. Of course, boys play far more video games than do girls and, as a result, boys are typically better equipped to apply their motor skills to sport settings, in which they excel above and beyond girls, though not merely on account of superior size, speed, and physical attributes, generally. Boys also excel at sport because they have conditioned themselves to apply cognitive abilities within the context of employing their motor skills. For these same reasons, stereotypes that posit boys as better drives than girls have taken flights, and, to some extent, data exists to substantiate such stereotypes as accurate. In this sense, Piaget’s understanding of how children begin to comprehend their environments bears directly on how they interact with their fellows relative to that environment.
For Piaget, play is in some sense a means by which to order the world. For those who most strenuously engage in play, the world is not only that much more ordered but is also more easily accessible. This is true if only because those who seek to order the world do so by way of their motor functioning and, in so doing, derive a sense of achievement from the application and development of these motor skills. Given this sense of satisfaction, it is clear why boys continue to engage in play to a far greater extent than do girls. Indeed, boys are often accused of being far too playful later into life. Of course, considering Piaget’s thinking, this extended play-time mentality is a function of the heightened degree to which play implicates motor and cognition skills for boys.
Given all this, those who today suggest that toys should not be marketed according to gender fail to recognize that these gender lines will operate regardless of how toys are marketed—boys will always prefer games or toys heavily rooted in motor skill development and girls will always pursue less motor skill-oriented games. Boys have traditionally preferred spatially oriented games because they prefer to engage in the kind of play that allows them to develop their motor functioning through the judgment of objects in motion. To attempt to alter this natural preference is to engage in futile exercise that will likely only serve to confuse or even impede motor skill development in children.
Ultimately, to insist upon what is an unnaturally varied set of playthings and games for boys and girls is to risk inhibiting their motor and cognitive development. Play cannot be evolved as gender-neutral because it has not evolved in such a way. Today, the forms of play in which girls and boys engage are engrained into the institutional and unwritten code of play; boys will be boys and girls will be girls. If a given individual child chooses to engage in play of a different kind than would be typically expected of him or her, this itself is indicative of some unique developmental impulse. By instead endeavoring to compel these decisions, the way boys and girls gravitate towards play becomes inevitably less reliable as an indicator of preference for motor skill cultivation.
From Jean Piaget’s pioneering work, it has become that much easier to identify how boys and girls seek to develop their own motor and cognitive skills. For boys, play is a means by which to assess each other’s capacity for judgment of objects in motion. This allows for superior hand-eye coordination, whereas girls are not as interested in either this or the complex rules that boys cultivate to govern their play structures. These rule-based play systems allow boys to institutionalize their previous play experiences, thereby allowing them to develop performance-based modes of thinking at an earlier age than their female counterparts. In evaluating the impact of play on the cognitive and motor functioning of children, it becomes clear that superior skills of boys as applied to sport, for example, may not be simply a function of superior physical attributes. Rather, this superiority may be rooted in the playtime focuses of boys relative to girls in that the former is constantly seeking to improve his motor skills from a much earlier age and without being forced to do so. Whether these differences in how boys and girls play are naturally inclined or socially conditioned is anyone’s guess, but the reality is that play has evolved as a means of equalizing the developmental playing field.
Darling-Hammond L. and Bransford J.D. (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Gould J. A. and Mulvaney R. J. (2007). Classical philosophical questions (12th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Gredler M. E. (2005). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Kort B., and Reilly R. (2002, April). Proceedings of Pathways to Change Conference. Alexandria, VA.
Lancy, D. F. (1976). The play behavior of Kpelle children during rapid cultural change. In David F. Lancy and B. Allan Tindall (Eds.), The Anthropological Study of Play: Problems and Prospects, (1976), 72–79.