One wants to be the Prime Minister of Auckland. A second is demanding the right to vote.

And a third just wants to be captain of her pretend pirate ship and make her crew walk the plank.

What, exactly, is going on in the minds of these 5- and 6-year-old girls?

Lots, says Dr Annette Henderson and Nathan Wallis, the boffins behind TVNZ 1's new show, The Secret Life of Girls.


"They are learning what they're supposed to be doing and what society is trying to tell them," says Henderson, a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Auckland.

"You see this internal fight between, 'What I want,' 'How I should be,' and, 'How I'm expected to be'. That's a big enough struggle for adults, but it's really hard for [them]."

"They're fascinating," agrees Wallis, a neuroscience educator. "They haven't been influenced by the outside world at this age. They just give their own opinion, raw and unaffected.

"It gives you an insight into their whole world."

That world has been captured in TVNZ 1's two-part special, which concludes on Tuesday. Based on an overseas idea, cameras capture every movement of a dozen girls over several days spent interacting in a Pt Chev kindy.

Dr Annette Henderson (left), senior lecturer in developmental psychology at University of Auckland with Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis.
Dr Annette Henderson (left), senior lecturer in developmental psychology at University of Auckland with Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis.

Monitored by two teachers, the dozen girls are left to interact with each other through free play and during activities designed to make them think about why they're doing what they're doing.

Henderson and Wallis watch their every move and help put seemingly innocuous interactions into perspective.

What you see is exactly what happens when adults interact, says Wallis. There's just one big difference: they're not as subtle about it.

"We're structured in such a way that we work in relation to others," he says. "When you go to a workplace, you work out who's alpha. We're all about status [and] you see that with little kids, but they haven't refined their ability.

"When we shake hands, I might squeeze a little bit firmer or tilt my hand to show you I'm the boss. They're just like, 'I am the boss and you have to do what I tell you to.'"

Both experts say many of the characteristics you see in a 5-year-old will still be evident once they're 40.

A scene from The Secret Life of Girls.
A scene from The Secret Life of Girls.

"A boisterous child will always be a boisterous child, but how much confidence they have depends on how they've been treated," says Henderson. "Shy kids might come in and be shy, but if they start to develop their own special niche, they'll rise to the top of that."

So why no boys?

"It's really about the 125th anniversary of the right for women to vote," says Henderson. "It's a chance to celebrate strong women, the future women of New Zealand."

Wallis agrees, saying the show reveals how society's view of women has changed since 1893.

"When girls are in there playing, they're talking about having meetings and being Prime Minister. I imagine that's quite different to 125 years ago when women didn't have the option of being Prime Minister."

He believes the format of the show works best when it upends those gender stereotypes.

"Boys can be very concerned about the group's wellbeing, and other people's feelings. Girls, as well as being concerned about other people's feelings, can also be quite competitive, ruthless, and determined to win.

"I think it just shows we're complex, us human beings. There's a whole spectrum and we're not necessarily at one end or another."

• Part one of The Secret Life of Girls is available on TVNZ OnDemand. Part two screens on TVNZ 1 at 8.45pm on Tuesday.