We live walking distance from Lawrence Hall of Science. It is, in fact, the only thing we can walk to from our house, except for nature and it is really hard to find a good cup of coffee in nature.
Anyway, all this by way of saying we spend a LOT of time at the science museum. In addition to the rotating exhibits, there is a back area where there are lots of activities involving sand and water and tectonic plate motion (California, remember?) but are mostly an excuse for kids to run in circles until they’re tuckered out. In the middle of all of this is a big, meandering pond with a bunch of flat rocks one can leapfrog among and plastic dividers to raise and lower to create currents, dams etc.
Most of the girls running and jumping around were wearing leggings or jeans with t-shirts and sneakers. But there was one little girl, around 6 I’d guess, who was wearing pink flip-flops with 2″ soles, a “twirly” red dress and a pink headband with a gigantic bow on it that was too big for her head and required constant tending (plus her hair was long and thick and blew in her face, blinding her). It wasn’t that she couldn’t play. She played. But she wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t leap from rock to rock and certainly wasn’t making the big, scary jumps the other girls were making. She watched, but stayed safe, going among 4 rocks, playing more quietly, doing less, stopping often to adjust her hair or clothes. If she were the only girl out there, I’d probably think, “Well, there’s a girl playing at the SCIENCE museum in her princess regalia–she’s having it both ways!” But the fact was, compared to the other girls, her clothing and hair ornament were circumscribing and completely defining her play. She couldn’t move freely. She took fewer risks. She took up less space. She explored less of the area. And she didn’t, unlike the other girls, play with the boys because she couldn’t keep up. The rest of the kids–girls and boys– were all playing and working beautifully together making a dam. In fact, I was really touched at how kind the kids were being to one another, across age and sex. They weren’t EXCLUDING her, she just couldn’t reasonably join in–not given the distance between the rocks, her inability to run or jump in those shoes, her headband popping off at the slightest motion.
Maybe that girl had fun. Maybe she didn’t care. But her choice of activity, experimentation, physicality and interaction with other children had all been defined by limitations of her outfit, by the need, at six years old, to look as pretty as a princess….