I REMEMBER watching my niece and nephew, as young children, playing with two long sticks while out on a walk.

Alex wielded his stick around, as if it was a weapon, while his sister pushed hers about like a vacuum cleaner.

Was it nature or nurture that led to their behaviour? From an early age, my nephew played with toy swords and guns and enjoyed noisy fighting games. My niece, as a little girl, wore a Disney princess tiara, served up plastic food from a toy cooker and carried a baby doll everywhere, often by its legs.

You could say their gender roles were defined early on - or that they made their own choices.

Gender issues are hotly contentious right now; from pay equality and employment opportunities to the way children are raised and educated. Increasing numbers of young people are identifying themselves as neither male nor female, and several organisations and public places are making allowances for 'gender neutrality'.

A school on the Isle of Wight recently went so far as to carry out a gender neutral TV experiment, encouraging a class of seven-year-olds to disregard differences between the sexes. The BBC2 show - No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? - saw the school banishing boys football matches and books featuring superheroes and princesses, introducing unisex sports teams and painting pink and blue cupboards a neutral orange. A female mechanic and a male make-up artist visited the classroom to dispel myths about 'men's jobs' and 'women's jobs', and children took part in strength tests; revealing equal physical abilities.

In removing traditional gender differences, the experiment sought to examine the effect on children's thought and behaviour patterns, and potential achievement levels. The man behind the programme, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, says children grow up bombarded with messages defining gender roles, and that differences they pick up from a young age can affect gender inequality later on. He discovered that girls have lower expectations of themselves and that boys showed more confidence in predicting achievements.

On the whole, a fairly harmless social experiment taking the age old mantra “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” (or woman) and looking at what would happen if children of that age weren’t treated differently as boys and girls.

As a child I was perfectly happy playing with dolls and reading fairytales about princesses being rescued by brave princes. I went to unisex schools, but sometimes boys were a nuisance and I didn't want to be around them. I went to Saturday morning gym club with a male friend, but I wouldn't have wanted him at Brownies, just as I wouldn't have wanted to play on his football team. I don't think any of that hampered my later life.

I accept that gender stereotyping can have a long-term, often damaging effect in various aspects of life, from inequalities in the workplace to the way men and women express emotion. What makes me feel uncomfortable about this TV experiment is that in allowing children more freedom, they had some choices taken away from them. The pupils weren't allowed to use separate boys' and girls' toilets, much to their horror, and they had books removed from the classroom, presumably without any say in the matter.

Of course equality in childhood is important, but sometimes girls want to be girls and boys want to be boys, and surely they should be allowed that option too.

* IN the scheme of things, does it really matter if Big Ben has fallen silent?

The famous bongs, silenced by a controversial renovation plan, will stop ringing out for up to four years. Parliamentary officials insist workers' hearing and safety would be at serious risk by continued chiming.

It's the longest silence in the bell's 157-year history, but it will still chime for special occasions so why the silly outcry?

Come on London; you've emerged from dark times this year with admirable resilience. Don't start getting all soppy over an old bell.

* LAST week's column about fitting into a right-handed world struck a chord with fellow "left-handers". John Bentley recalled some older pupils at school getting caned for being left-handed! While John was allowed to write with his left-hand, he was made to slope the letters to the right.

When he went into National Service, using his left hand on the firing range he hit the targets. "Then my sergeant shouted 'Right hand!' so I had to switch hands. I learned to be ambidextrous," said John. "Taking up boxing in the forces, my left hand came in useful though, as my opponents were all right-handed."

Another reader was told in an interview that she'd never cope with shorthand "as I write with my left hand in an above-and-over position. It made me more determined to succeed, and I proved the Head of Department wrong," she added.