Preschoolers and Gender Roles

Posted October 26, 2020


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.



The Art Of Observation

Posted October 14, 2020

By Joanne Esser

Have you ever watched an infant lying on her tummy trying to grab a colorful toy just beyond her reach? I mean really watch, without intervening or commenting or helping her along? There is a depth of concentration that is fascinating to see as she coordinates her brain, her eyes, the muscles of her torso, her arms and hands to work together to raise herself up, focus her eyes, stretch out and reach her fingers toward the object she wants. It is action linked to pure desire, a natural process that is entirely self-motivated. You can almost see the neurons sparking across synapses in her brain to connect her will to her actions.

In the world-renowned preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, they describe teachers as researchers. The subject of our research is the child. Observation is the means by which we do this research. We step back, watch and listen to figure out a child’s aim, and study what actions he takes to try to achieve his goal. We know that young children are constantly engaged in the work of mastering their world – usually through play – whether that involves collecting information through the senses, practicing a physical skill, trying out language and vocabulary, relating to other people or using imagination to understand a concept. The teacher’s role is to observe the child’s actions and then to support the child’s attempts to accomplish their self-chosen task. It sometimes looks as though the teacher is doing nothing, since we intentionally hold back and wait rather than speak or interrupt. But that is often what’s required to allow genuine observation to happen.

As researchers, teachers continually take notes, paying attention to the child’s nonverbal as well as verbal communication, her actions, emotions and language, even recording quotes from the child’s own words. We take many photographs and sometimes videos to make a record of what children are doing with their hands, their eyes, their bodies and facial expressions. We use our knowledge of child development and our teaching experience to give context to our observations, to theorize what a child is working on.

For example, a teacher might watch as a child approaches a climbing wall for the first time. The teacher notes the child’s look of determination, or trepidation, or excitement. She begins taking photos as the child reaches up a hand or a foot, capturing the moment-by-moment decision-making. Perhaps another child comes over to give the climbing child a boost, or to offer some advice. The teacher jots down the conversation, recognizing the roots of a growing relationship between the two children. As the child struggles to manage the hand- and footholds, observation gives the teacher clues about the child’s persistence, stamina, resilience and physical skills. Later, the teacher might plan where the group will hike tomorrow, seeking new climbing challenges she guesses would be just right for the child.

Like any researcher, we make use of the information we gather. We ask open-ended questions; we imagine possibilities and offer children new materials and experiences, with the intention of provoking their responses and thinking. We gather more data and study it for insights and potential next steps. Then we invite the points of view of others by sharing our photos and notes with parents and with our colleagues, continuing the research cycle.

Parents can also be researchers as they practice the art of observation. Patient watching and listening often reveals the hundreds of small steps children take as they approach and eventually master a new task. It can be amazing and very satisfying as a parent (or grandparent!) to stand back and observe the miraculous way the young human brain constructs meaning, bit by bit.

Our practice of observation also means that each child is seen and known. As the wise teacher and author Vivian Paley said, “The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to know more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning and wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. ‘What are the ideas that I have that are so interesting?…I must be somebody with good ideas.’ “