Gender and physical activity representation in children’s colouring books

colouring books word cloud

Word cloud of common words found in colouring books for boys (left) and for girls (right)

Books and other curricular materials are vehicles of knowledge, ideas and values that may contain messages that teach children normative ways to be a boy or a girl. Children take seriously the messages they receive from books, toys, marketing and the adults around them.

Despite some publishers recognising the importance of ensuring equal representation of all people in curricular materials, it is still common to find stereotypically gendered books.

In this post I report on some qualitative and quantitative research on children’s colouring books series where there is a book for girls and a book for boys. It was carried out by Vladimir Martínez-Bello (Universitat de València) and Joanne Hill (University of Bedfordshire).

As physical activity and sport researchers, we felt that it was particularly important to avoid gendered representation of physical activity. In the last 12 years, a couple of studies of American children’s books have found them to portray boys more often in active or outdoor play and girls in indoor or static positions (Fitzpatrick and McPherson, 2010; Hamilton, Anderson, Broaddus and Young, 2006). Gender representation in sports media has been investigated extensively, including presenting some sports as male-appropriate and some as female-appropriate, supporting assumptions of female frailty and male strength, and presenting female athletes in a sexualised manner, although some research points to the latter diminishing somewhat over the last 25 years. Assumptions that girls and boys are simply different also restrict girls’ and boys’ opportunities to play sports together (Cooky, Messner & Musto, 2015; Koivula, 1999; Messner, 2000; Messner, Duncan & Jensen, 1993).

The aim of this study was to investigate the representation of female and male characters in the illustrations of six colouring books published by well-known publishing houses in the UK that were entitled “Book for Girls” or “Book for Boys”. We took a sample of 136 illustrations of human characters and analysed the gender and age of the human characters in the pictures, the place (indoors or outdoors), and the type of activity (including physical activity, sedentary activity and active transport). 

1: Representation of gender

  • In the books for girls 75% were depicted as female, 13% as male and 12% as unclear.
  • In the books for boys, 60% were depicted as male, 18% as female and 22% as unclear.

In one of the books for girls, there was only one male character present in all the sampled images, represented as a bridegroom at a wedding.

It appears that publishing houses may assume that boys are not interested in seeing female characters and likewise, that girls are not interested in seeing male characters. I agree with Let Books Be Book’s (2018) concern that gender segregation in itself is an artificial and damaging divide. Their social media sites highlight the stories of a number of parents and children frustrated by implicit messages that a certain toy or book is not for them, claiming that it restricts children’s opportunities and dreams. This labelling of books and toys may also lead to bullying of any children who make the so-called ‘wrong choice’.


2: Gender and physical activity

  • Of the female characters represented in the books for girls, 26% were doing physical activity, 67% were sedentary, and 7% doing other activities.
  • Of the male characters represented in the books for boys, 44% were doing physical activity, 42% were sedentary, and 14% doing other activities.

So, there was a trend towards boys being represented as more active, but it was not statistically significant. Other activities means active transport, household work, or occupational work.

These quantitative results for physical activity obscure some differences in the ways that active female and male characters were represented. In the books for girls, where leisure time physical activity was displayed, it was frequently dance, such as ballet or bharatanatyam (Indian dance). In one image of horse riding, a female character rides behind a male companion who holds the reins. This is one example of female characters being submissive to or relying on men, or having a lesser role.

Physical activities that only male characters were in engaged, in the books for boys, included football and fishing. One image of active transport showed a number of men dressed in suits, walking to work. The opportunity and encouragement of leadership in work and adventure settings was also clear in the books for boys.

The written language accompanying some images invited readers to imagine themselves as part of the story; in the boys’ books, readers see ‘you have discovered…’ or ‘you have created…’ that position readers (that is, boys) as the protagonists in science or adventure settings. In sedentary activity or static positions, female characters in the books for girls were represented in fashion or fantasy settings; written instructions encouraged girls to imagine her own appearance in the future, or to imagine herself kissing someone.

The subject positions available to girls in these books have a narrow scope and reproduce discourses that girls are less active. This could affect the participation of girls in a variety of physical activities.


We also had some results which did not support what we expected to find:

3: Representation of gender and age

  • In the books for girls 66% were depicted as adults, and 34% as children.
  • In the books for boys, 65% were depicted as adults, and 35% as children.

We had expected to find female characters more often represented as children but this was not supported. This is possibly a good thing, as it means there is some similarity in how female and male characters are presented, and female characters are not infantilised.


4: Gender and location

  • Of the characters in the books for girls, 48% were depicted outdoors, 18% indoors, and 34% in unclear locations.
  • Of the characters in the books for boys, 57% were outdoors, 8% indoors, and 35% in unclear locations.

We had expected to find boys represented more often outdoors. The main difficulty was the amount of images where the location was unclear.

However, qualitative analysis of the books for boys suggested it was common for male characters to be represented in workplace, discovery or adventure settings, depicting boys or men as scientists, astronauts, pirates, divers, strong men and superheroes. There was no space travel in any of the books for girls. Strong men and superheroes had muscular bodies or demonstrated strength through lifting heavy objects, for instance. In one image, one strong man was drawn with smaller muscles, unable to lift a heavy object – but this could be seen as providing an opportunity to laugh at a character unable to carry out his role. 

Some images in the books for girls stand in contrast; there were superheroes featured, but they were girls rather than women; female characters sometimes had jobs, but were ‘closer to home’ or smaller in scope – such as pet shop owner – compared to the astronauts and pirates of the books for boys. Female characters were close to or part of nature, for instance drawn as the size of small animals and interacting with birds. This contrasts with male characters in the books for boys who conquered nature – explorers on safari or anglers catching large fish. Although one image in a book for boys depicted a female pilot, she was sat behind the male main character, perpetuating an idea that men lead.


Although the scope of this paper is only on gender, the analysis also highlighted a lack of representation of larger bodies, non-white bodies and people with disabilities.

What can we conclude? Despite decades of research into gendered books (and other children’s items) our results don’t show all that much is new or has changed. We argue that girls and boys do not need separate books. To separate children generates a feeling of difference and impassable boundaries around ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ (Messner, 2000).

A number of publishers of children’s colouring books have recently agreed to produce no more gendered titles, instead agreeing to gender-neutral books (Let Toys Be Toys, 2016). In the past there might have been an assumption that showing evidence of stereotyping would be enough to persuade publishers, writers and illustrators not to produce books which encourage gender stereotyped views, and as a result the next generation would be free of stereotypes. Today, consumer pressure meets some resistance from publishers and retailers who claim that consumers seek and appreciate security in gender-differentiated goods. This suggests education should continue. Parents and teachers might find ways to encourage critical reflection on gendered materials when they discuss books with children. Talking about gender in books is just one element in a difficult journey towards less prescribed gender roles and greater acceptance of gender diversity.



Cooky, C., Messner, M.A., & Musto, M. (2015). “It’s Dude Time!” A quarter century of excluding women’s sports in televised news and highlight shows. Communication & Sport, 3(3), 261-287.

Fitzpatrick, M., & McPherson, B. (2010). Coloring within the lines: Gender stereotypes in contemporary coloring books. Sex Roles, 62(1-2), 127-137.

Hamilton, M.C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M. & Young, K. (2006). Gender stereotyping and under-representation of female characters in 200 popular children’s picture books: A twenty-first century update. Sex Roles55(11-12), 757-765.

Koivula, N. (1999). Gender stereotyping in televised media sport coverage. Sex Roles, 41 (7/8): 589–604.

Messner, M. A. (2000). Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters: Children constructing gender. Gender & Society, 14(6), 765–784.

Messner, M. A., Duncan, M. C., & Jensen, K. (1993). Separating the men from the girls: The gendered language of televised sports. Gender & Society, 7(1), 121–137.

Let Toys Be Toys. (2016). Buster Books becomes 10th publisher to agree to #LetBooksBeBooks. Retrieved from

Let Toys Be Toys. (2018). Why it matters.



Analysing large scale qualitative projects

I’ve written here some reflections on dealing with and analysing a lot of qualitative data. It might not be insightful or groundbreaking, it’s not based in the literature, but is part of my aim to show how qualitative research is, or can be, carried out.

I’ve been a part of a project on social justice in physical education teacher education (and related sport pedagogy disciplines) for couple of years. A while ago I wrote that we had done 19 interviews in England,  and these were combined with another 50-odd from colleagues in six other countries, providing over 70 one-to-one interviews with physical education teacher educators and pedagogy faculty.  Big thanks are offered to all these interviewees for taking the time to talk about their teaching with us.

By most accounts, this is a lot of qualitative data to handle. For my PhD, I only had 13 group interviews with 25 participants (plus their photo diaries and my own observation field notes). Analysis of the social justice project was also made difficult because the interviews had been generated by eight interviewers, so some of the nuances, context, ‘being there’ that you get when doing all the interviewing yourself was not possible. The first job was to divvy up the interviews so that we each read a few and looked for some overview ideas. This generated a number of ideas that, given the amount of interviews, would result in a few papers. We each voted on which paper we would most like to work on, and after votes were tallied I and a co-writer were assigned a paper, and we started to draft up an outline for the paper and a theoretical framework that would inform the coding process to start the analysis. If I were doing this as a PhD project or it was the sole output of a project, I would do it a bit more inductively and spend longer going back to the data, forward to the ideas, immersing my thoughts in the participants’ words, but within the constraints of the study a deductive approach helped to organise things. So, one issue with a large project is fully getting to know all the data.

Actually, that’s another part of handling large scale projects, a more positive aspect: there are more ideas *in* the data, simply because of the variety of voices that have been generated, so there is more opportunity to write about a range of topics. As I said, from our 70-plus interviews we came up with a few paper ideas and there were enough voices and ideas in the data that meant there was very little duplication

The next issue is the analysis process itself – not the organisation of the data, but the interpretive work. The most common (I think, from anecdotal observation) analysis technique in qualitative work might be thematic analysis, although as two of the most prominent advocates of thematic analysis say, lots of qualitative research claims to involve thematic analysis when there are multiple ways of doing it and probably some analysis done in the name of thematic analysis that is not really proper thematic analysis. There seem to be two schools of thought on using thematic analysis when there is more than one researcher. I interpret that one school suggests that it is ok for transcripts (or field notes or other data, whatever) to be dished out to researchers and each researcher is responsible for that set of transcripts, with some cross-coding of each others’ transcripts in order to check the reliability. The other school problematises inter-rater reliability and instead (in my interpretation) supports one researcher doing all the analysis so that the themes are truly based on one person’s interpretation, and the themes work together fully:

The use of inter-rater reliability is underpinned by the (realist) assumption that there is an accurate reality in the data that can be captured through coding. Our approach to TA sees coding as flexible and organic, and coding should evolve throughout the coding process. (The University of Auckland, no date)

On a practical level, having one lead author might have produced this sort of thematic thoroughness, but it would have been overwhelming and I doubt any of us would have got very far just because of the sheer amount of reading, thinking and writing that would have required. For us, we didn’t concern ourselves with reliability, and had each of the two or three main writers handling one theme each and writing up their interpretations alongside some quotes, then meeting (virtually) to discuss, check, compare ideas and extend the interpretation. In this way, the papers progressed at a good pace. We just had to pay attention to the authors’ ‘voices’ or writing styles at the end.

During analysis, there was one final small hurdle to deal with, which was the format we were analysing in. One used NVivo, others used the highlight and comments functions in Word – this did cause some problems when we came to recombine our ideas and turn to the final writing stages, because the possibilities for comparison of the coding, quotes and memos for each theme took a little longer than it would have if everything were in the same format. But if you prioritise writing up the interpretation and discussion rather than on attaching codes to quotes, the major issues can be avoided.

Here’s those ideas in brief:

  • Be aware you might not be able to fully get to know the data
  • Relish the opportunity to write about multiple aspects of the participants’ stories
  • Share out the analysis and prioritise writing over coding (or, dig in for the long haul and have one person do all of it!)
  • Pay attention to the consistency of the writing style in the finished product.

Let me know in comments if you have other experiences of handling lots of qualitative data or working with a large team of researchers.

Conference abstract: PETE knowledge of sociocultural and social justice issues: the value of personal and professional experience in building a knowledge base

This is the abstract for a forthcoming presentation to be presented at the British Educational Research Association annual conference, September 2017. It is from the Social Justice in PETE project.

Joanne Hill and Jennifer Walton-Fisette

Discussions about the requisite knowledge base for pre- and in-service teachers of Physical Education (PE) have included the ability to teach about socio-cultural issues or in line with social justice educational values (e.g. equity, democracy). Limited research; however, on the knowledge base that their Physical Education Teacher Educators (PETEs) have and draw upon during teacher education in university has been conducted. Indeed, there has been little research into teacher educators’ own professional development, despite their role/investment in the professional development of both pre-service and in-service teachers.
The focus of this paper is how PETE and Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy (PESP) university faculty have come to their knowledge and understanding of sociocultural issues and issues of social justice. The guiding research questions were:
1. What do PETEs know about socio-cultural issues and social justice?
2. How was this knowledge constructed?
3. What knowledge do they draw upon in their teaching?
4. What examples, what sources of knowledge, do they use? Where do their examples come from?
Vygostky’s social constructivist learning theory, specifically the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was used to frame this research study.
Over 70 PETE and PESP faculty from the USA, New Zealand, UK, Sweden, Australia and Ireland engaged in an in-depth interview, completed a demographic survey on their social identity and professional experiences, and shared materials from their PETE and PESP programmes, such as course handbooks and assignment instructions.
This knowledge construction includes personal and professional lived experiences, formal study or qualifications, and experiences in the field (i.e., with pre-service teachers and/or in schools). Some PETE and PESP faculty reported little knowledge of socio-cultural issues and, usually, little inclusion of this content in their programmes. Many of those who expressed a commitment to teaching about and for social justice had personal and professional experiences that had caused them to recognise the need for educating their students about sociocultural issues. For instance, some had encountered marginalisation and discrimination based on their identity, or their personal politics motivated them to teach for and about justice and equity. These personal experiences could be used as content or initiate reflection in PETE and PESP classrooms. This study prompts consideration of the professional development needs of teacher educators on sociocultural issues and about social justice that goes beyond acknowledging their existence and moving towards changes in pedagogical practices in PETE and PESP programmes.

I will present at BERA on 7th September 2017, 2pm, at the University of Sussex.

Link round-up: literature reviewing and analysis

Here’s a signal boost for some recent writing advice I have found useful, or older posts that I’ve recently shared with my dissertation/thesis writing colleagues.


Here are notes on some of Patrick Dunleavy’s always great structuring/editing advice for papers and dissertations.

Reading, planning, starting writing

Raul Pacheco-Vega has excellent posts on planning and doing your writing and reading. They are aimed at developing academics but have use for students too.  I especially like this quote in How many sources is enough? (Number one question I get from students):

How many sources should I read for my literature review?

This is an absurd question that is prompted by arbitrarily setting a random number of sources as “enough”. If you read the right five sources, you’ve probably covered a full field. But if you read 40 sources that all tend to pull in different directions, you’ll still be unable to cover all the sources.

And this too:

“When should I stop reading and start writing?”

My answer to that question is: you should be reading AND writing. Apparently, a lot of people feel like they need to Read All The Things before they can write a literature review… But you should ALWAYS be writing as you read.

In that post, there are a few links to ways to write notes and memos while reading. My own approach has been something like that too: read with the purpose of your writing in mind, and construct your own sentences that might be lifted into your writing. even if they start off descriptive, you can work on making these sentences more explanatory and analytical later.

Writing literature reviews

Wendy Bastalich’s in depth explanation of critical literature reviewing is an important reminder to go beyond describing the previous research and make it work for you.

On a similar note is Pat Thomson’s point about not just naming the authors, but using the literature to frame your own study. I call naming the authors the ‘shopping list’ approach to literature reviews. Smith said…; Jones said…; – in this, your own voice is lost and the reader knows nothing about what you think about all these sources. If you’re a student, you’re probably partly being graded on your knowledge and understanding of the issues. For all writers, it is important to build your own argument, starting from signalling what the literature offers you and how it links to your purpose – not making the reader do this work.


Analysis needs to be so much more than coding and comparing your data to the literature. It sounds really obvious to say but your results chapter must use the data to answer the research question. The number 2 question I get from students goes something like, how do I turn my qualitative data into a results chapter? When I studied my Masters at Sussex, my dissertation was supervised by Dr Alison Phipps who a little while ago wrote about taking analysis beyond the coding and organising stage to interpretation stage, to really look at what your data say, how to build theory, and what you can conclude from the data.

And back to Raul Pacheco-Vega, who has this post on the difference between analytical and descriptive writing. The number 3 question I am asked!

If you’ve reached this point, I hope there is something useful amongst these links for you!

Rethinking the ‘aspirations’ of Chinese girls within and beyond Health and Physical Education and physical activity in Greater Western Sydney

This post summarises my published work Pang, B. and Hill, J. (2016). Rethinking the ‘aspirations’ of Chinese girls within and beyond Health and Physical Education and physical activity in Greater Western Sydney. Sport, Education and Society [iFirst], 1-14. The paper can be found at

Although researchers have attempted to understand why so few Chinese girls participate in physical activity, attempts have not before taken into account girls’ aspirations for sport, education and career and how their aspirations have been shaped. In this paper, we made visible how girls’ engagement in physical activity relates to what is thinkable, desirable and achievable for themselves and in relation to parental expectations. Aspiration is a term that has been co-opted by neoliberal discourse to point blame at those who do not ‘achieve’; it goes along with post-feminist ideas that girls have all options open to them now.

This strengths-based research calls for a rethinking of how aspirations are conceptualised. It does this by bringing a Chinese feminist perspective into physical education and sport pedagogy in order to demonstrate a need to reconsider dominant racialised perspectives on feminism and on physical activity/sport in education. We took inspiration from Raewyn Connell’s writings on Global South feminisms and gender theory, where she raises questions about a Western or white focus that reifies the ‘othering’ of Global South women and girls. Different perspectives are needed to understand their experiences.


This paper aims to explore young Chinese girls’ aspirations and ideal
environments for engagement in Health and Physical Education (HPE)
and physical activity (PA) in Greater Western Sydney. Interviews are used
to elicit these girls’ perceptions of their future and ideal environments in
relation to HPEPA. Their data offer insights into key influences regarding
what is thinkable, desirable and achievable in their HPEPA environments.
Results showed dimensions of environments, such as social and
pedagogical aspects, that are conducive to these girls’ aspirations in
HPEPA (e.g. social support from parents, and functional built environment
for HPE). This paper aligns with a strengths-based approach to
understanding and recognising young Chinese girls’ perceived
aspirations within their socio-cultural environment. In doing so, we
discuss how feminism and femininity are positioned from a Chinese
perspective that may provide alternative views to a post-feminist
panorama in promoting advancement of all young girls in HPEPA.
Results invite us to take into account some of the girls’ ambivalence
towards being an ‘autonomous’ and ‘dependent’ modern Chinese young
girl. This paper calls for a rethinking of how aspirations that shape
young people’s future in HPEPA in much of the contemporary Western
world are conceptualised in academic research.

Spring update 2017: recent research activities

Is this thing still on?

Sweeping the dust off and trying to get back into blogging my research and teaching life. Here’s what I’ve been up to lately…

This year I have got involved in a few projects that have led to there being six papers ‘on my desk’ at the moment – metaphorically on my desk, as some of them are still only concepts. So managing my time is a priority at the moment, or even managing my expectations about what I can successfully complete. Getting back into my teaching after maternity leave (updating units to improve them, thinking about long term changes, remembering everything after an academic year off) has taken a lot of my energies this year but as designing and delivering teaching is a never ending task, there comes a time when it must no longer get in the way of my research activities.

My attention is on three main projects:

Social Justice in PETE

Following the creation of over 70 interviews with PETE and PESP faculty across the English speaking world, I have three papers to contribute to:

The knowledge base for social justice and socio-cultural issues in PETE…how do PETE and PESP faculty know what they know or believe to be social justice and socio-cultural issues? What professional development could be offered for teacher educators?

International perspectives on social justice in PETE…what is called social justice in different areas? How does local context affect what we see as social injustices and how to educate for social justice?

Whiteness in the PETE curriculum… prompted by the question generated by a student movement ‘why is my curriculum white?’, we examine the construction of curriculum on two PETE courses.

PE textbooks and children’s colouring books

Data collection and analysis is all complete for both elements (one on PE textbooks, one on colouring books) of this project so it is just (‘just’!) about editing and refining the text of both papers and ensuring sufficient theoretical basis and educational implications. I presented this work at BERA in September 2016 and more in depth in a research seminar at York St John in December 2016.

Student journeys: narratives in student experience

Over two academic years we are collecting interviews with Level 4 and 5 students on their journeys (geographical and metaphorical) to and through university to understand more about their dreams and intentions in coming to university and succeeding. We have carried out some interviews and observations and will be inviting participants to engage collaboratively in developing teaching and learning changes.

Blogging my research: what do we talk about when we talk about social justice?

Word cloud of social justice definitions

We have now completed 19 interviews with PE and Sport academics / teacher educators in universities in England (part of a total of over 50 interviews across the world!). An interesting part of the discussion in these interviews has been around the participants’ definition of social justice and socio-cultural issues. These are the key things we are investigating so they are terms that we need to define with participants in order to be on the same page for the subsequent questions. There’s a diversity of responses in how these terms are understood and used. Below are some notes I made on the responses I got.

Social justice is appreciating and accepting difference and its importance in a diverse society. Achieving potential: students’ potential, society’s potential. Tolerating and understanding difference. Social identity: fitting in, or not fitting in. It affects you as a researcher: you want to know who you students are. It means breaking down inequality and privilege to social identity and biography. It means owning and examining privilege. What might be equal to one person is not another.

Social justice is aspiration, expectation, multiculturalism. It is more than legal equality, fairness and being treated the same: it is about social structure, cultural norms, but not just structure-agency, but things beyond our control, in everyday interactions. There’s a worry that current developments to British culture and politics are showing a fear of difference.

It can also be about moving from integration to inclusion: focusing on how environments can be adapted, not changing students/children/any people. Within physical education and sport courses, we need to look beyond sport to society in order to reach for social justice across the board.

If you are going to be a critical pedagogue, you need to be aware of social justice and socio-cultural issues, you need to be aware of giving voice while also understanding your own position. You can challenge students to find the holes in your perspective, but you need to be careful not to teach in an elite way.

Social justice needs to appear across all modules, to get it across through the back door, but it should also have a stand alone module for focus.

We might be more comfortable with terms like diversity, equality, equity, inclusion. Not everyone understands or uses the notion of social justice. Is it a new term? Why use this one in particular? Does it encompass something more or greater than equity?

I’d be interested to hear your perspective if you would like to add a comment.

Peace Learner

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The Football Collective

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genders, bodies, politics

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