Without fail every single year in my Pre-K and Kindergarten classes at least one student would declare “That’s a boy thing” or “That’s a girl thing”. There was always confusion. There was always hurt feelings. Not only are children hearing these words from adults, but they are being constantly sent visual cues from commercials, toy stores and TV characters as to who they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to like. As adults we do not give children enough credit for the sophisticated topics they are capable of discussing and learning about. Young children are the perfect activists. They are passionate, they are strong-willed and they are open-minded. We can learn a lot from children if we take the time to. This is why every year in my classroom and now with my own children I create a curriculum centered on Exploring Gender Stereotypes with Children.
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Prior to introducing any of the curriculum discussed below it is important as adults to do a little soul searching into our own biases. Ask yourself Am I part of the solution? or Am I part of the problem? Focus on your actions throughout the day. I am very conscious of the subtle ways adults project gender stereotypes on my children. When they are at the dentist my son is automatically given a Toy Story toothbrush and my daughters are given Disney Princess ones (meanwhile they have no idea who the Disney princesses are, but have watched Toy Story on repeat). I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have told my son he is “outnumbered by girls in his house” or surprised by his love of My Little Ponies over Superman. Just this weekend I saw my daughters’ baseball coach’s eyes widen with surprise and inquire “Do you practice at home?” as both my girls threw the ball right to him and hit line drives. Nothing was said to the boys on the team. We all have biases. We need to be conscious of them and alter our actions so we are not passing these gender stereotypes on to children.
HERE ARE SOME WAYS OF EXPLORING GENDER STEREOTYPES WITH CHILDREN
Begin with a zero tolerance policy concerning gender bias statements from children and adults
Being conscious of the language we use is the first step in combating gender stereotypes. As soon as I hear a child say “That’s just for boys” or “Only girls can like…” I confront the statement and use it as a learning opportunity. I make a point of saying That’s not true, (name) likes (whatever was being discussed) and he’s a boy. Rather than singling out another child in the classroom, I often use one of my family members as an example. Once those statements are spoken in the classroom we use the topic of gender stereotypes as a circle time discussion topic.
Exploring gender stereotypes during circle time
Prior to introducing the discussion I print out some photographs of mainstream toy stores and toy catalogs. I introduce the discussion by saying that I have heard people say that some things are just for boys or girls. I ask the children how does that make them feel. Because we have taken the time prior to this discussion to create a safe community my students are comfortable sharing their emotions with their peers. Often kids will say it makes them sad or mad. I follow up with “Do you think it’s fair?” Because young children at this age are solidifying right/wrong, fair/unfair, the answer is usually a powerful NO!
Next I show my students some photographs from toy stores and toy catalogs. You know the ones where half the store is pink and filled with girls holding dolls and playing in kitchen sets, and the other half is blue with the sports equipment and boys playing with action figures. I show them photographs of Legos and Duplos. Some of the Legos are primary colors, others are pastels with girls pictured. We observe photographs of Melissa and Doug boy and girl magnetic dolls. The boy can be dressed up as a firefighter, knight and super hero. The girl’s clothes include a selection of dresses, skirts and sweaters. I kid you not. We discuss why a store would only have girls playing with the dolls or boys with the action figures and baseballs. I empower the children to discuss how they feel when adults make these decisions about what they should play with. One year when we were having a discussion one of my student’s said “Meredith, can we write to the company and tell them they are wrong?” Of course we can! And we did. There is nothing more powerful you can teach a child than to speak up against injustice. What a perfect real-life writing opportunity!
Action is empowering.
Create a class book that combats gender stereotypes
Once the discussions are occurring and children are beginning to feel their little voices grow strong I empower them further by creating a classroom book entitled “What’s a boy’s thing? What’s a girl’s thing?” The book begins by questioning who gets to decide what boys and girls can look and act like. The book declares that “Boys and girls should choose to like and wear whatever they want! Boys and girls should be whoever they want to be!” I created a free printable book for you to use in your home or school setting. Get your book here. Each page contains text that the children can then add their own illustrations to. Pages 11 and 12 are for each individual to create a page in the book. Make as many copies of pages 11 and 12 as you need for each child. The text states “Some people say only boys/girls can , but that is not true because is a girl/boy, and she likes .” Discuss how each child will pick something that someone told them they can’t wear or do because of their gender and then declare that can’t be true because she/he does it. Children love this part of the writing exercise because it is an action step that makes them feel powerful.
The last page in the book states, “It doesn’t matter whether we are boys or girls. We are all special people who get to decide what we like, no matter what other people may say!” Once all the pages are illustrated I laminated the book (This is our favorite laminator) and then secured all the pages using a book binder machine, but you could also use a hole puncher and book rings. Read the book to the class (every kid loves to hear his/her name read out loud!) and then place the book on your shelf. This book is important! You could even give each child the chance to bring the book home to share with his/her family for the night. If a child lives in more than one home, make sure the child gets to bring the book to all homes.
Use gender neutral language
The words we use around children are crucial to how they will characterize gender. Be careful of making words applicable to only one gender. Instead of saying fireman say firefighter. Replace policeman and postman with police officer and postal carrier. These simple changes make a huge difference in combatting gender stereotypes.
Create gender neutral jobs
I cringe when I think of the number of times a teacher uttered the words “we need a couple of strong boys to carry the chairs”. Why? Why do we assign strength to only boys? What a ridiculous concept. One of the ways I created gender neutrality in my classroom was by pairing boys and girls together to do class jobs. Easy solution! At home my husband and I share the household duties. My kids can see my husband baking a pie (seriously, the man makes the best peach pie!) and me using a power tool. Make it a point for children to witness adults breaking the gender stereotypes with their actions. I always had my husband visit my class wearing a pink shirt to end the pink/blue debate quickly.
Children’s books that combat gender stereotypes
Children’s literature should always be an integral part of an early childhood curriculum. I reached out to my friend Erica at What Do We Do All Day? as I knew she probably had a great list of books to combat gender stereotypes. Of course she did! Check out 14 Books that Challenge Gender Stereotypes. Use these books as a way to explore gender stereotypes with children. Reading a book is the perfect way to start a class or home discussion.
Focus on gender neutral toys
Now that you are more conscious of gender stereotypes you are probably looking around your home or classroom in search of areas that can be improved. Do you see any culprits with your toys? There are a few quick fixes that I would like to share with you. If you have a dramatic play area in your classroom make it more than a kitchen area. You can add a workbench with tools, dolls, scarves and large pieces of fabric. Or better yet, my favorite classrooms keep the dramatic play area completely open-ended with a variety of hollow blocks ideal for imaginative play. Let the children’s imaginations soar! In my own classroom I had a section of the room designed for dramatic play that included hollow blocks, scarves and fabric. That’s it! It was a teacher’s dream to watch the children (boys and girls) create the most imaginative play.
In the block area instead of having wooden people that are assigned gender and roles I encourage teachers to use these wooden peg people. It is an easy solution. With the nondescript wooden people children can use their imaginations to make the people whoever they want to be.
Do you have more ideas on exploring gender stereotypes with children? Let’s keep the conversation going! I’d love to hear from you.