This piece is about how children explore gender through play. It’s a common and healthy part of children’s learning and development, and helps them make sense of the world, and decide who they are.
As an early educator, you’ve got an important role in giving children an accepting, open-minded idea of gender from day one. That lays the foundations to help them challenge gender stereotypes the rest of their lives.
You’ll find resources to help you talk to parents about all this, as sometimes it can seem more complex to people than it really is. Plus, you’ll get ideas on how to take a more progressive, empowering approach to gender education in your own learning environment.
You’ve probably got some clothes in your toy box that are ‘just for girls’.
Not to say you believe that, of course. But somewhere far away, a team of toy designers and their sales department (not to mention a mountain of sexist social norms) all decided that pink, sparkly dresses are for girls.
However, the next generation doesn't have to feel the same way.
In early education, you've probably seen a three-year-old boy wander over to the dress-up corner, slip a dress on, and announce he’s going to be a princess for the rest of the day.
Maybe you’re not sure how to respond. Do you say something? What if the parents find out and get upset? Is this normal for toddlers? Who decides what’s ‘normal,’ anyway?
If tackling this topic feels a little touchy, that’s understandable. But it really doesn’t need to be so daunting. Exploring gender is a completely normal part of children’s play. After all, children use play to figure out how the whole world works — so why wouldn’t gender be a part of that?
Granted, seeing things that way can take a bit of work, and a little rethinking. So today, we’ll look at how (and why) we should make more space for play that challenges gender stereotypes in early education.
And we’ll start by taking off our grown-up goggles.
Exploring gender is part of play
Play is children’s best tool to make sense of the world. It’s how they process new concepts, and explore unfamiliar roles or situations. So when children start to learn about gender, and how that affects our sense of self, it’s only natural that they’ll process those concepts through play.
When you see boys wearing something stereotypically feminine, like a princess dress, that’s an example of gender non-conforming play. Children might only explore it a couple times, or maybe it’s an everyday thing for them. Maybe they just like the texture of the fabrics, or perhaps they’re puzzling out what it ‘means’ to be a boy or a girl (or anyone). Either way, it’s a common part of children’s play.
But with our grown-up brains, we can make all this seem more complex than it is. Jamie Solomon, an educator and preschool director who’s spent years studying gender education in early childhood, explains that it’s our adult overanalyzing that makes this into an issue in the first place.
“Children are experimenting with and exploring everything. Just like they’re curious about how a car works, they’re similarly curious about different types of people, the things we do, and what we wear. That exploration may or may not have anything to do with gender itself. As adults, we can often interpret children’s actions through an adult lens, and jump to conclusions too quickly.”
Why good gender education is so important in early childhood
Our first five years is when we shape our fundamental understanding of how the world works, and our place within it.
Several decades of research suggest that children are already absorbing gender stereotypes by their first birthday, and have a solid grasp of them by the time they’re three or four. You’ve probably heard something like “boys can’t wear dresses!” or “girls can’t play with trucks!” from the children in your care before.
Gender is just one piece of a child’s identity, and one aspect of their overall learning and development. But if children are told that boys and girls ought to be some certain way, it can shape:
What we’re interested in
What we believe we can do, or should do
How we think we ought to behave
How we build relationships with one another
Taking steps to challenge the stereotypes around us can be intimidating. But as Jamie says, any first step is a good one.
“I think a lot of times, our fear keeps us from delving into this stuff with children. But if you wait to be ready or prepared for every question and conversation that comes up, you’ll never start,” she says. “You have to accept this learning process is messy, or you’ll say things that sound silly, and that fumbling through some stuff is part of it. That’s okay.”
Looking at the influences we give children
When you notice children echoing gender stereotypes they’ve learned, it’s worth gently correcting them in the moment. But if you want to really make that lesson stick, you might think about changing up your learning space.
Dr. Janice Kroeger of Kent State University, who has decades of experience researching gender identity in early education, points out that lots of classroom materials can inadvertently reinforce stereotypical ideas about how boys and girls ought to be.
Here’s what you might want to do in your own classroom:
Trade gender-specific toys for more loose parts and natural materials. “You could play with a pinecone as a doll if you like, but it could also be a house, a magic wand, a hammer or a spoon,” Janice says. “Natural, open-ended materials often make for more creative play than you might get with a Barbie doll.”
Get more bulk fabrics instead of costume clothes in your dress-up area. A piece of pink fabric doesn’t have the same gender-coded intention as a factory-made princess dress, and lets children decide how they’d like to play with it. Plus, you can easily get cheap fabric playthings from charity shops, or by repurposing old towels or sheets.
Read children’s books that challenge stereotypes. Stories are a great way to get the conversation started, and the narratives give children an example that they can apply to situations in their own lives.
Olgivy by Deborah Underwood - Oglivy the bunny joins a new school, where there are lots of rules about what bunnies can wear, and how they can play. At first Oglivy doesn’t fit in, but then they show the other bunnies that the clothes don’t make the bunny.
A Fire Engine for Ruthieby Leslea Newman - A story about how Ruthie loves to play with fire trucks and other “boys’ toys,” even though her Nana wants her to play with dress-up clothes and dolls.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch - This fairy tale inverts the stereotypical gender balance, telling the story of a heroic princess who goes on a quest to save a helpless prince.
Talking to parents about gender and stereotypes
When it comes to making space for gender non-conforming play, we’ve got to consider another piece of the puzzle: parents.
The “what-if” worries of how parents might react can often hold us back. Maybe you’re concerned that parents might say something, or that you’ll get drawn into conversations where you don’t have all the answers.
There just isn’t a clean, simple answer here — gender identity and challenging stereotypes are complex topics. But if you’re heading into a conversation like this, Jamie Solomon points out that it’s not just about you explaining what you’re doing. Even more important, she says, is taking the time to listen.
“It’s not terribly helpful to say, ‘This is how we do it, leave your feelings about it at the door,’” she says. “We’ve got to listen, to hear parents’ fears and concerns, and to really try to get where they’re coming from. Because that’s the only way they’ll come to understand our perspective, too.”
When having these conversations with parents, these three things can help:
A value or belief statement. Many early education settings now have an official statement on inclusivity and equity as part of their practice. Referencing this policy can help explain the ‘why’ in promoting gender non-conforming play.
Explaining gender as part of play. As we mentioned earlier, adults can often overanalyze this whole thing with our grown-up brains.
More gender-neutral classroom materials. Replacing gender-targeted toys with natural materials can ease parents’ concerns, while still giving children space to play and explore however they like.
Further resources on gender justice in early education
If you’d like to do more to welcome gender non-conforming play, or to challenge gender stereotypes in early education, there’s no better time than now.
Gender Justice in Early Childhood - This organization provides books, activity guides and questionnaires, and other practical resources focused on understanding how you can support a more equitable approach to gender education in early childhood. You can also go here to connect with other networks and resource bases focused on the same theme.
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