Social Behaviors and Gender Differences among Preschoolers: Implications for Science Activities

Article excerpt

Ethnographic studies involving the learning of science by younger children are fewer in number compared with other science education studies. This two-year study focused on the social behaviors and gender differences among preschoolers (4 to 5 years old) engaging in science activities. Findings indicate that the social behaviors of boys and girls were stereotypical. Boys tended to exhibit curiosity, spontaneity, and extensive prior knowledge about nature (vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants). Boys also tended toward aggressive, competitive, and sometimes violent behavior. Girls tended to display a submissive countenance, fear of arthropods, yet caring for the welfare of other animals. During free time, preference for same-gender peer interactions was observed while boys played with Legos, blocks, and cars, whereas girls played with puzzles, books, and the housekeeping center. These toy preferences have implications for science education. The science concepts learned during group time the previous day influenced the context of activity that preschoolers engaged in during free play the next day.

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Equity issues have played a significant role in how science is taught and learned in the classroom. Science educators are becoming increasingly aware of gender differences in science, and consequently are focused on researching how gender differences may affect academic achievement (Lee & Burkam, 1996), performance in science competitions (Jones, 1991), and choice of science activities (Block, 1983; Steinkamp & Maehr, 1984). The influence of social relationships on students' choice of science as a subject of study is attributed not only to gender differences, but also to adults' perception of gender roles (Eccles, 1989). While studies (Fleming & Malone, 1983; Levin, Sabar, & Libman, 1991) have shown that science is a highly gendered activity by late adolescence, Adamson, Foster, Roark, and Reed (1998) claim that

there remains uncertainty about when and how this gender differentiation begins. Current evidence suggests that this differentiation may start early within subdomains of science, and emanate from experiences both outside and inside the elementary school classroom, and may involve an active process of choice, informed by both adult and peer social agents. (p. 847)

Corsaro (1985) studied peer culture and its influence on the behavior of younger children. According to him, preschoolers create a social world through play. Even at the ages of 3 and 4, children "constructed and shared a peer culture which includes a set of common activities or routines, artifacts, values, concerns and attitudes" (p. 171). This age group is characteristic of a preoperational child in whom egocentricism is dominant (Brainerd, 1978; Piaget, 1950). A preschool child's egocentricism is challenged, however when faced with opportunities to interact with peers and adults who have different viewpoints. Ethnographic studies involving young children's learning of science are few in number. Fleer (1993) analyzed the current literature from an early childhood perspective and found an urgent need to determine which aspects were relevant and useful for teaching science to young children 3 to 5 years of age.

Theoretical Framework

In studying the ethnography of a preschool classroom, a researcher brings to light many interrelated events and experiences that continuously inform and help in understanding the complexities in a preschooler's life. Fernie, Kantor, and Whaley (1995) report that

One heuristic that has proven helpful to us in explaining this classroom and our research program is to conceptualize this classroom as two overlapping or intersecting domains: A distinctive peer culture domain and a parallel school culture domain, the latter reflecting the academic purposes and community/group nature of classroom life. …