Inclusion and wellbeing

Heteronormativity in early childhood

Talking to young children about sexual orientation and gender
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April 11, 2023
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Chatting to children about sexual orientation and gender means answering questions sensitively and honestly, and challenging stereotyping and prejudice. 
  • Consider whether the resources in your physical environment reflect diverse people and families and offer play where stereotypes can be challenged.
  • Check out the recommended books for inclusive inspiration for your reading area. Use the stories as a jumping off point for conversations.

This article is the second of three on addressing heteronormativity in early childhood settings. Here we consider how to have conversations with children and examine the role of the wider environment. You can find part 1 here.

Conversations with children about orientation and gender

Practitioners often express concern about speaking with children on issues of sexual orientation and gender. However, it is essential to note that this is not about forcing conversations onto the child, in the same way that we would not force them to speak about any other issue they do not want to.

This is more about being able to respond to children’s innate curiosity about others and ensuring that we, as practitioners, are equipped to ensure that children are encouraged to think positively about difference. 

Sometimes children will say things rooted in prejudice or discrimination. It may feel like challenging this will create conflict, but encouraging children to form their own ideas is a crucial element of being an early years practitioner. For example, if a child says, "I can’t play with that, that’s gay!”, consider challenging this statement with sensitive questioning. You might ask:

  • Why do you think it is that? 
  • What do you mean when you say that?
  • How do you think that comment might make people feel? 

Shutting down conversations by telling a child they are wrong would likely be unproductive and so instead the focus must be on helping the child understand what the statement truly means and why it may not be fair. 

Even if you find that children in your setting are not speaking in this way about difference, they still need to be aware that there are other children who may well be challenging gendered and heteronormative expectations. As well as being prepared to have conversations, creating an inclusive environment can be an important step toward meeting our equalities duties. 

A photograph of two fathers playing cards with their daughter

Creating an inclusive early years environment 

Countering heteronormativity, as well as other biases, in early years settings requires an examination of resources and the material environment we create. Carefully considered resources accompanied by a team committed to actively challenging heteronormativity is key to best practice.

Inclusive small world play

Small world play encompasses a lot of resources typically considered as being either for boys or  for girls. This can feed into heteronormativity by reinforcing a strict binary understanding of gender roles.

Dolls, for example, don't necessarily have a gender but elements of their appearance still mimic gender expression. This means that features of dolls such as clothing, hair length, and body types need to be varied in every set, extending beyond dollhouse sets that represent the nuclear family model.

Any small world play which has dolls needs variance in gender expression, race, and disability in order to support children’s awareness that their aspirations shouldn’t be dependent on these factors.

When considering heteronormativity in particular, how we set up our small world play also needs careful consideration. Small world play is an opportunity to encourage children to play with toys they may not typically be given. Although many children in their early years already confidently play with whatever they want, others will have absorbed messaging about what they should engage with based on gender.

Ways to experiment with this could include combining activities you generally see mostly occupied by children of one gender. This could be achieved by putting out two sets of small world play combined such as putting fairies out with a train set, or by using small world resources in different areas such as painting or writing with cars.

Inclusive books

The big ideas

Inclusive stories

  • ‘Mummy, Mama and me’ by Leslea Newman
  • ‘Daddy, Papa and me’ by Leslea Newman
  • ‘Mama and Mummy and me in the middle’ by Nina LaCour 
  • ‘Julian is a mermaid’ by Jessica Love
  • ‘When Aidan became a brother’ by Kyle Lukoff

As is the case with all inclusive practice, a key resource to examine is books. A range of gender and sexuality representation is essential in countering heteronormativity. Family dynamics greatly vary in society so this needs to be reflected in our books. Children need to know that some families have one parent, or multiple parents, some have two dads or two mums, and some children aren’t raised by their parents at all.

"Mummy, Mama and me" as well as "Daddy, Papa and me," both by Leslea Newman are a great introduction to same gender parenting with colourful illustrations and simple text that's perfect for engaging younger children.

"Mama and Mummy and me in the middle," by Nina LaCour is a slightly longer daily routine book perfect for children at the upper end of the EYFS.

There is also a need for close attention to be paid to story content that may reinforce cisheternormative gender roles. When it comes to books about emotions, are we seeing a range from different genders, or are we just seeing angry boys and crying girls?

Gender stereotypes about care and responsibility are intertwined with expectations of cisgender-heterosexual nuclear families. It is also essential to have books that talk about trans identities.

This can include abstract representations of transition such as that explored in “Julian is a mermaid,” by Jessica Love which is mostly illustrations and uses the popular metaphor of mermaids to tell a short story about a boy wanting to be a mermaid.

Whilst this works to introduce the concept of gender identity, it must be accompanied by more literal representations like “When Aidan became a brother,” by Kyle Lukoff. This book features a transgender child as the main character and explores his excitement and nerves ahead of the birth of his sibling with a key message of acceptance and honesty.

A photograph of two fathers drinking from cups and watching an iPad with their daughter.

Inclusive roleplay

Dressing up resources will vary greatly between settings and there are certainly multiple ways to incorporate this into more inclusive practice.

Many settings have moved towards having pieces of fabric and accessories as opposed to clothing. In settings that do have clothes and costumes, it is fine for your dressing up area to include typically gendered items such as dresses and high heels as long as practitioners have a collective understanding and agreement that any clothes can be worn by any gender.

A boy in your setting might have the same desire as a girl in your setting to put on a princess dress. The difference is that the girl will have seen countless people who look like her wearing clothes like that, whereas the boy could easily have seen none.

This means you may need to offer different encouragement to establish your setting as a safer space to explore. You will also need to anticipate that other children or, unfortunately, staff might laugh or make a comment and be ready to intercept.

Another key area which presents key opportunities for inclusive practice is the home corner. Often, the home corner is intended to replicate a conventional Western domestic space, replete with pretend food, dining tables and chairs, and general kitchen apparatus. It represents ‘family life’ and, as such, games where children take on the role of ‘mummies and daddies’ who look after their babies, cook for each other, and generally act out elements of daily routine. 

One might consider this an innocent form of play, however broader ideals around which children can take up what roles continually shape how children come to play in these space.

We have found from our experience that it is common for there to be a discussion, if not conflict, over who is playing which role as well as what each role has to do. It is unrealistic to prevent these games from occurring so practitioners need to use them as an opportunity to encourage exploration of alternative family structures. 

Home corners also should not be the exact same set up all the time. A wide variety of role play opportunities can be explored including different environments and jobs. 

Workplaces (including early years settings) often have a disproportionate number of a particular gender and/or a significant difference in which roles are filled by which gender. This is another element to be mindful of in terms of offering encouragement and support so that we aren't perpetuating the idea that gender should dictate job opportunities.

Young children's ideas of what job they want won't usually stay the same, though it is still important to instill a sense that whatever they want is achievable.

Conversations count

Being prepared to have conversations with children about difference is an important aspect of address heteronomativity. The overall environment we create for children, both physically and emotionally must be purposefully curated to promote inclusion too. There will always be limitations to resources but the ways in which practitioners can utilise whatever they have available is what will truly have the most impact and support the best outcomes for all children.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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