URJHS Volume 7


Gender Differences in Preschool Children’s Language and Movement

Challey Stephens
Kansas State University

Linda K. Crowe*
University of Nebraska at Kearney


Six preschool-age children (3 boys and 3 girls) with a mean age of 3 years, 5 months, participated in a study examining gender differences in language and movement during 20 minutes of free play. The 20 minutes of play was coded for total number of words produced and intensity level of movement, with two minutes of nonverbal and verbal interaction during play coded as movement-related, social, or play augmentation. Results showed that the girls used language more often to augment their play and to accompany their movement than boys, whereas the boys had slightly more social utterances than girls. There were no noticeable differences in mean levels of physical activity or in the total number of words produced.


Children’s language and learning expression are integrated with movement and play. Research showed that optimal learning and growth for preschoolers occur through movement (Andress, 1991). Children learn to communicate their feelings, thoughts, and needs through movement and play. The quality of language that occurs during ongoing movement often augments or enhances a child’s play. Between the ages of 3 – 3 ½ years children begin to display growth in decontextualization abilities, thematic content of play, and knowledge of self-other relationships (Gitlin-Weiner, Sandgrund, & Schaefer, 2000). Additionally, play and language provides insight into a child’s symbolization skills (Piaget, 1962). However, research showed that there is great variability across children in their symbol development, with gender accounting for some of the observed differences (Fein, 1981; McLoyd, Warren, & Thomas, 1984; Pellegrini, et al., 2007). The purpose of the current study was to determine whether gender accounted for the frequency and quality of language and movement during free play.

Research has shown that physical play provides unique opportunities for language development (Nadon-Gabrion, 2007). However, children must be comfortable with movement to successfully imitate and respond to verbal cues during play activities. Young children, who have the space to run and play and who are encouraged to do so, develop this comfort naturally. These children can then use their language skills to enhance their play by communicating about what they are doing or by verbally solving problems that occur during physical movement activities. Children who engage in higher level or elaborated play schemes and movement during play with peers are more likely to use verbal communication during play than children who engage in sedentary play or who interact little with peers during play.

Another factor that impacts the type of movement and language children use during play is related to gender. Gender differences have been observed in play theme, play type, activity level, and partner choices. A few studies show that preschool girls assume more domestic roles associated with low physical movement, whereas boys often engage in more occupational-type play with increased activity levels (Fein, 1981; McLoyd, Warren, & Thomas, 1984). Boys more often than girls engage in exploratory play, with girls engaging in dramatic play more often than boys (Bornstein, Haynes, Pascual, Painter, & Galperin, 1999). Fein (1981) also found that children segregate themselves according to their level of physical play. Boys and girls interact more often with same-sex peers based on level of play patterns. That is, both boys and girls who preferred physical movement played with same-sex peers who showed a similar preference for physical movement during play, but children were less likely to play with opposite-sex peers sharing movement preferences. Additionally, Pellegrini found that even very young children segregate themselves and spend the majority of their time with same-sex peers in mixed gender preschool settings.

Research showed that boys and girls interacted with peers based on play patterns and levels of physical activity. Boys and girls engaged in different kinds of play, and therefore, most likely differed in activity level and type of language used during play. However, there is no research to date examining the combined use of language and movement and how gender may contribute to these differences. The purpose of this study was to determine whether there were gender differences in preschool children’s free play. Specifically, this study examined how language was used to enhance the children’s play, the frequency with which language accompanied the children’s play, and the level of physical movement that occurred during the children’s play.



Six children, 3 males and 3 females, were selected for this study from a pool of children participating in a larger scale study. All children had signed consent from their parents. The mean age of the children was 3 years, 5 months. The children attended two different all-day preschools on a Midwestern university campus. All children were considered middle socio-economic status based on the educational attainment of the children’s parents, who primarily were professors and college students. Each child participant wore a developmentally appropriate garment containing a microphone and accelerometer for collecting oral and movement samples.


Children were video and movement recorded for 20 minutes during their typical free play activities in their respective classrooms. Classroom teachers and assistants were encouraged to interact naturally with the children. Once the recordings were completed the videotapes were transcribed verbatim, including all verbal and nonverbal behaviors and movements of the children. Full transcripts were examined for the total number of words produced during the 20-minute segment. Two-minute segments in which children were actively engaged in play were further examined and coded for type of language used: movement-related, social, or play augmentation (See Appendix). Full transcripts also were coded for intensity of physical movement: sedentary, slow and easy, moderate, or vigorous (See Appendix). The number of occurrences for behaviors of interest was counted within each category. Data for boys and girls were examined individually, and group comparisons were analyzed using descriptive statistics.



First, the total number of words individual children used during play was examined (See Table). Three children, Participants 1, 2, and 4 produced the most words during the 20 minutes of recorded play (119, 100, and 179 words respectively). The number of total words ranged from 43 to 179 words. However, the average number of words for boys and girls was nearly identical (92 words for boys; 87.33 words for girls). Closer examination of the communicative functions of the children’s verbal and nonverbal interactions during 2 minutes of play revealed noticeable differences by gender (See Figure 1). Girls exhibited far more communicative behaviors to augment their play (mean = 55.67) and to accompany their movements (mean = 25) than did the boys (augment play mean = 33; movement-related = 16). However, boys used slightly more social communication than did girls, on average (means = 14 boys; 11 girls). Additionally, both genders most frequently used language to augment their play compared to social and movement-related functions.

Table 1. Total Number of Words

Number of Words



















Figure 1. Mean frequency of nonverbal and verbal communication by communicative function for boys and girls during 2 minutes of free play.


Figure 2. Mean frequency of movement behaviors by intensity level for boys and girls during 20 minutes of free play.


The physical intensity of movement varied little across the 6 children, with all children involved in stationary play at a much higher frequency than any other type of movement (See Figure 2). For the six children combined, nearly 85% of the overall 20-minutes of play involved stationary movement. Participant 1 had the highest frequency of fast movement (4 occurrences), with Participants 2 and 6 having no instances of moderate or fast movement during play.


The primary questions of this study were to determine whether gender affected children’s language and movement during free play. Six children were observed and recorded for 20 minutes in their preschool classrooms. Results indicated that there were no overall differences in the number of words produced or in the types of physical movement exerted. However, there were notable differences among the individual children, with three of the six children (2 girls and 1 boy) producing more than twice as many words as the other three children. Notable gender differences did emerge in the types of communicative behaviors children used during play. Girls communicated more frequently about their play and movement compared to boys, who had only slightly more social communicative functions than girls.

In comparing the language used during specific types of physical activity, no differences were observed. As a group, the children used fewer vocalizations and higher numbers of nonverbal behaviors during all three types of play coded. Children often engaged in nonverbal behaviors, such as pointing and shaking their heads. The lack of difference among the children related to movement may be attributed to the segments selected for analysis. Similar types of activities were collected and examined across the six children versus randomized cases.

The findings from this study are consistent with previous research on gender differences of preschool children. Cook, Fritz, McCornack, and Visperas (1985) examined the functional usage of preschool children’s language and found that males were more assertive in their social interaction than females. The current study also showed that girls used more functional or play-related behaviors than boys, with the boys engaging slightly more often in social interactions than girls. Bornstein, Haynes, Pascual, Painter, and Galperin (1999) examined gender differences on the types of play in which boys and girls engage. The findings from this study are consistent with what they found as well. Boys engaged more than girls in exploratory play, with girls engaging in dramatic play more often than boys. All three girls in the current study engaged in dramatic play (i.e., pretending to be a nurse while playing with a hospital kit), while 2 of the 3 boys were more exploratory in their play (i.e., wandering around the room from activity to activity).

There were a number of limitations to this study. First a small number of preschool children were included. Therefore, the results may not be representative of preschool boys and girls in general. The children in this study were all middle to upper SES from one preschool setting and were not typical of the general population. Children were not selected at random but were specifically chosen based on the amount of movement and activities in which they were engaged. Children also were selected based on similar age. Future research examining gender differences in preschool children’s language and play as they change over time should probably include children from different SES backgrounds and different age ranges, to determine the effects of age on movement and language during play.


Andress, M. (1991). From research to practice: Preschool children and their movement responses to music. Young Children, 47, 22-27.

Bornstein, M. H., Haynes, O. M., Pascual, L., Painter, K. M., & Galperin, C. (1999). Play in two societies: Pervasiveness of process, specificity of structure. Child Development, 70 , 317-331.

Cook, A.S., Fritz, J.J., McCornack, B.L., & Visperas, C. (1985). Early gender difference in the functional usage of language. Sex Roles, 12 , 909-915.

Fein, G. G. (1981). Pretend play in childhood: An integrative review. Child Development, 52(4), 1095-1118

Gitlin-Weiner, K., Sandgrund, A., Schaefer, C. (2000). Play diagnosis and assessment. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

McLoyd, V.C., Warren, D., & Thomas, E.A.C. (1984). Anticipatory and fantastic role enactment in preschool triads. Developmental Psychology, 20(5), 807-814

Murray, A., Fees, B., Crowe, L.K., Murcphy, A., & Henriksen, A. (2006). The language environment of toddlers in center-based care versus home settings . Early Childhood Education Journal, 34 . 223-239

Nadon-Gabrion, C. (2007). Language, a bridge to learning in movement and music. Theory in Practic, 13, 4.

Pellegrini, A.D., Long, J.D., Roseth, C.J., Bohn, C.M., & Van Ryzin, M. (2007). A short-term longitudinal study of preschoolers’ ( Homo sapiens ) sex segregation: The role of physical activity, sex, and time. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 121 , 282-289.

Piaget, J. (192). The language and thought of the child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Schilling, T., McOmber, K., Mabe, K., Beasley, B., Funkhouser, S., & Martinez, L. (2006). Promoting language development through movement. Teaching Elementary Physical Education, 17, 39-42.

Wang, J.H. (2004). A study on gross motor skills of preschool children. Journal of Research in Childhood Education.


Language Coding

Movement-Related: Language that was spoken during moderate or fast movement.

Social: Language that was spoken during any social engagement.

Play Augmentation: Language that was spoken to enhance play.

Movement Coding

Stationary: Little to no movement. (i.e. A child watching other children playing or sitting at a table coloring with little movement of limbs or trunk)

Moderate movement: Fairly intense movement, in between stationary or fast movement. (i.e. Fast walking, skipping, hopping, or jumping.)

Fast movement: Movement described as intense or extreme. (i.e. running, continuous skipping, hopping or jumping


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