Why girls should play with building blocks and construction toys and parents should join in 

By Matthias Eck and Justine Sass (UNESCO), Juliane Hencke and Dirk Hastedt, Sabine Meinck, Alec Kennedy (IEA) and, Tianyi Liu (UNESCO). 

There is a global skills shortage. Yet, there are not enough women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Women account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of computer science graduates. This is despite secondary school girls outperforming boys in science in many countries. Boys tend to do better in maths at early grades and generally lose their advantage later in school.  

How parents engage in early learning activities with girls may contribute to women’s under-representation in STEM studies and careers.  

Study on early learning and gender

In a new study, UNESCO and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) investigated gender differences in early learning.

The study, based on IEA’sTrends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)2019 data,highlights that parents do more early learning activities with girls than boys. However, parents of boys focus more on numeracy than on literacy in pre-primary activities.  

Parents engage girls more in singing songs, drawing shapes, writing letters and words, saying counting rhymes, and writing numbers. Yet, parents engage boys more on playing with building blocks and construction toys. 67% of parents engage boys often in play with building blocks or construction toys. Only 58% do so with girls.

Why does it matter? 

For boys and girls, early learning activities provide a foundation for later academic achievement and interest. Parent’s involvement is also beneficial to early learning activities. Reading together and playing with counting toys is important for literacy and numeracy skills.  

Understanding forms, shapes, and physical spaces builds spatial skills. Playing with building blocks and construction toys matters. It builds important skills for mathematics.  

What can we do? 

The study calls on parents and early childhood workers to engage in learning activities with boys and girls. This includes playing with forms, shapes, and physical spaces, especially with girls, to build their spatial skills and support further learning and achievement.  

Pre- and in-service teacher training should also support teachers to create equal learning environments and encourage spatial play and build their capacities to encourage parents to equally do so. 

Read the brief and learn more about why early learning activities matter for girls’ and boys’ mathematics and science achievement.

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