Preschoolers and Gender Roles
By Tracy Riekenberg
He, she, they, them, ze, zer, and more. One would have to be living under a rock to not notice that gender and how it is defined is being examined in the world today, even in preschool.
Preschoolers begin to notice their own gender identity around age 2. They will also begin to sort others into categories as they work to understand gender: binary groupings of boys and girls mostly. (Even adults are categorized as “boys” or “girls.”) Because these young children are using very basic physical attributes to categorize people, they often misname a man with long hair as a woman or a girl wearing blue clothes as a boy. The best we can do for children when they make these mistakes is to say something like, “That is a man; men can have long hair!” Or “Blue is a color for all children.”
Along with sorting of people into genders, preschool children also begin to desire to play with children of their own perceived gender. Children may seek out a friend of the same perceived gender to sit near, play with, or walk next to. Children may also begin “gender enforcing” what roles they think others should play. For example, a child may say something like, “Only girls play with dolls.” As with gender sorting, it is best for adults to warmly challenge these ideas by asking why the child thinks that, or assuring that all toys are for all children.
At All Seasons Preschool, I have observed that gender-focused or gender-exclusive play happens most indoors, where toys are a big driving factor for play. Generally, many girls are drawn to dress-up and baby dolls, whereas many boys are drawn to blocks and trucks. However, when we play outside, the gendered play dissipates and the entire group plays together. I think the absence of toys is one factor, but I also think nature itself is so open and broad that it invites children to think widely about play.
Stretching children’s thinking about gender roles and identities is a goal of mine, and I sprinkle seeds throughout our day. I am working very hard to use more gender-neutral language when talking to the children. Saying “guys” or “boys and girls” is so limiting in gender definitions, so I am consciously working to say “children” or “students” when addressing the group. I also encourage all children to play with everyone, and all children to play with all toys. Recently, I added baby dolls to the dramatic play area, and have been so excited to see all the children playing with the baby dolls. The children have created families, and girls are moms or sisters and boys are dads or brothers. All children have enjoyed dressing the babies, feeding the babies, carrying the babies, and – my favorite – taking the babies outside. Children climbing trees with a baby doll in their hands may be my favorite moment this fall.
There are things you can do at home, too. If you are reading a book about scientists and the book only portrays men scientists, I encourage you to challenge the book with your child. Ask “Can women be scientists?” Or “Why are there only men in this book?” And then find a new book with illustrations that show role models of all genders! Work to eliminate gendered job titles from your vocabulary. (This one is hard for me!). Instead of “fireman” say “firefighter,” instead of “mailman” say “letter carrier,” instead of “snowman” say “snow person,” and so on. I would also encourage you to have available toys that are traditionally marketed for the opposite gender of your child. Have some trucks available for girls or some dolls available for boys. Buy books that depict children of all genders and that feature both boys and girls as characters. Arrange playdates with children of all genders. Invite boys and girls to birthday parties.
And know that the binary gender sorting only gets more defined as your children grow. For my own children, I remember when they were in kindergarten and first grade and told me about playing as a large group of children at recess. But around second grade, I started hearing about “boys’ club” and “girls’ club” at school, where the children segregated themselves (mostly) by their genders. This is a normal part of development, but it broke my heart a bit.
So at All Seasons Preschool, creating a safe, gender-inclusive environment hopefully supports cross-gender play for as long as possible.