How 'Wild Things' Tamed Gender Distinctions

By Bond, Karen E. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 1994 | Go to article overview

How 'Wild Things' Tamed Gender Distinctions


Bond, Karen E., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


This article, offered to teachers who have suspected that children's gender inhibitions impede learning in coeducational settings, describes how boys and girls found a common ground in an Australian dance education program.

In a dance education program at a primary school in Melbourne, Australia, a class of five- to eight-year olds--eight boys and six girls of various ethnic backgrounds--suspend their gender inhibitions through use of masks, multisensory ritual, and performance. The 15-week program, which I refer to as "Wild Things" (after Sendak, 1963), was a graduate student project conducted by Cherie Whitington, a former primary teacher with 15 years of experience as a free-lance dance specialist. Wild Things culminated in a performance for families and friends that was characterized by a high degree of group cohesion, including an absence of gender role playing.

Background

Studies have shown that by age eight, perceptions of gender differences crystallize, along with the emergence of same-sex preference patterns in play (Lott, 1987). The lower primary school is thus a relevant setting for the study of gender issues in dance. It is important to include the perspectives of children. As Stinson, Blumenfeld-Jones, and Van Dyke (1990) noted, "not all voices are heard in dance literature...the voices of children are silent". A long-range intention is to replicate the Wild Things program using a comprehensive research strategy based on participant observation, structured recording of teaching and learning behavior, and child reporting methods (e.g., interviews, visual artwork, and phenomenographic self-description from videotape patterned after Alexanderson, 1993). This article endeavors to make sense of Wild Things, stage one. Information sources include a field journal, observations of children on videotape, interviews with the dance teacher, and children's drawings and anecdotes.

Structured observation was a component of Wild Things. Laban Movement Analysis was used as a framework for ongoing planning and descriptive evaluation (Dell, 1977; Exiner & Lloyd, 1973; Laban, 1960), and Whitington and I conducted independent observations of videotaped sessions. However, our research has not yet been examined to determine the extent of influence of a female dance teacher on children's behavior, female observers on the interpretation of behavior, or transference of learning to other settings. Nor have stringent sampling techniques been used. From an empirical design perspective, these constitute limitations to research validity.

Early Observations

My role began as program advisor. However, I was so impressed by changes in children's behavior as evidenced in performance that I stayed involved afterwards, taking on an elaborated role of researcher.

During an early visit to the class, I was struck by what appeared to be an extreme polarization of genders: boys kicking, girls skipping; boys jostling, crashing, and falling, girls twirling and flitting. Boys and girls did not pair together and they avoided close proximity. Two boys periodically exhibited karate-style movements, attracting much attention from the other children. The term "dance" was met with boyish guffaws. Whitington confirmed that the boys did not like the idea of dance and preferred to call her classes "movement" or "drama." She also noted, "Sometimes I feel more drawn to the boys because they are assertive and dynamic, whereas the girls are withdrawn and held back." It may be that in the multicultural, multiage, multiability context of Wild Things, gender distinctions were particularly strong, for both children and outside observers. As an observer I surrendered to a human tendency to perceive problems of sex and gender as central. As Zammuner (1987) noted, "Sex and gender constitute perhaps the single most important grounds for discrimination between types of human individuals". Another issue is whether children's social anxiety in a novel environment was actually expressed in gender polarities. …

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