Date of Award

Summer 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Human Development and Family Studies

First Advisor

James G. Elicker

Committee Member 1

German Posada

Committee Member 2

Sharon L. Christ

Committee Member 3

Sean P. Brophy


This study explored gender differences in the occurrence of 66 preschoolers' (ages 3-to-5; 29 girls, 37 boys) physical, social, and "engineering thinking play" behaviors across three play environments: the traditional playground, the dramatic play area, and an environment in which children played with large, manipulable, loose parts. Previous research has indicated that young children are not engaging in enough physical play to maintain healthy lifestyles. Play may also have benefits for social competency and cognitive development. Observations of children's engagement with a new and engaging play material, Imagination Playground TM blocks, which are designed to foster imaginative and creative constructive play, were used to understand more about preschoolers' physical activity, social behaviors, and "engineering thinking play," a recently developed construct that focuses on early design- and construction-related thinking and behavior. The "engineering thinking play" observation measure was used as an index of the types of behaviors in which preschoolers are engaging that parallel thought-processes and behaviors associated with the engineering process (e.g., explanations of how things are built, construction, and generation of innovative and creative ideas). Results indicated no gender difference in the frequency of occurrence of early engineering thinking play, suggesting that research is needed exploring processes underlying boys' and girls' early cognition, and girls' subsequent disinterest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related (STEM) careers, compared to boys. Additionally, children's play with large, manipulable, loose parts was associated with three times the frequency of engineering thinking play than occurred in the traditional outdoor playground. Large loose parts play also included high levels of gross motor and fine motor physical activity, and positive social play behaviors. These observations suggested that play with loose parts and other manipulable materials may benefit children's development in multiple domains.