Nursery Management

Nursery Practice Q&A: Motivating boys

  • Nursery Practice Q&A: Motivating boys

There’s much early years settings can do to support boys learning, explains Fiona Bland…

Q: Why focus on boys?

A: All children have their own characteristics, fascinations and ways of learning and developing, and practitioners must have high aspirations for both boys and girls. However, the early years workforce is female-dominated, and we must consider the impact this may have on the way activities are approached and presented, the expectations, rules of play and the environment. EYFSP results show that writing is consistently the lowest performing area, particularly for boys. Girls continue to outperform boys at all levels of education.

Q: How can we motivate them?

A: Studies show that male brains are wired differently to female brains. Boys are hands-on learners: they learn best by moving, climbing, touching, building and taking things apart. When boys move, their brain wakes up and they will react physically to everything around them. Create lots of outdoor projects, e.g. building activities, making and creating signs, treasure hunts or collecting things. Use superhero imagery to engage their interest in any activity, especially role play or creating storyboards. Boys prefer concentrating on one thing at a time, so let them finish one activity properly before starting another.

Q: How about getting boys interested in literacy?

A: Reading and writing are crucial life skills so it’s important to develop a passion for them at an early age. Try using a pop-up tent for a themed reading area each day – these can match children’s current interests, and they will enjoy searching for the tent to find out what exciting stories can be found.

Boys are active learners so use story props (puppets, shadow theatres, story stones, story boxes, etc.) to enable them to retell and create new stories. Include action figures to develop their creative thinking. Get them involved with tick lists using symbols or pictures and clipboards. Use computers to your advantage – boys are particularly attracted to screens, and touching interactive screens can help them to learn letters and engage with literacy.

When they are playing outside, introduce mobile mark-making pots, and pin clipboards and pens around your outdoor space. Provide exciting ideas to get them mark-making and counting. These can be as simple as drawing with a stick on the ground or forming letters with bark or pine cones. Build letters in snow or use spray bottles to create them. Use chalk paint on old tables, walls and floor spaces. Paint the underneath of tables, and cover with a cloth so boys can crawl into the dark space to mark make with chalk.

Use ‘what if’ questions to get them thinking about solutions to problems. For example, ‘If there was a fire in a house, what would you do?’

Q: What more can we do to help?

A: Think about your nursery spaces: are there enough areas to attract boys to learn? Do your role-play areas include outfits and accessories that boys like to try on? Are areas of your environment presented in a way that is attractive to both sexes? Involve boys in the planning of the environment.

Boys love having lots of space and will spread out, often on the floor, with their activity. Is there plenty of room for them, or do you have too much furniture?

Boys love to play outdoors, so think about whether you have exciting learning opportunities outside, too. Boys enjoy taking risks, so think about how you can provide opportunities for them to identify, assess and take risks, both physical and emotional, in their play.

Boys tend to be more focused on objects rather than faces, so think about your expectations when talking to them – eye contact needs to be natural, not forced.

Q: Can these measures also work for girls?

A: Of course! Practitioners are best placed to know their children and how they like to learn. When we talk about boys we’re not saying all boys because we all know boys who are really sensitive, good listeners and speakers, and girls who enjoy running around, shouting and playing superheroes.

Q: How can we get parents involved?

A: Ask parents what motivates their child, and try to weave that into the nursery day. What is the child’s favourite book or character? Encourage them to talk about a story they have enjoyed. If a child is showing good development through a particular type of activity, share this with parents so they can continue their play explorations and learning at home.

Talk about the importance of stories. Set up a lending library with a range of reading material, such as books, magazines and recipe books for parents to take home and share with their child.

NDNA’s online course Motivating Boys offers advice on supporting boys with their learning at an early age, and considers the effect of children being taught and cared for within a female-dominated workforce. Its series of interactive modules include video content, and there’s a test at the end of the course, with a certificate for those who score 80% or above. To find out more, visit