Challenging Gender Stereotypes in the Early Childhood Classroom

Although research shows that while most parents agree that children should be treated the same regardless of gender in early childhood, they still treat male and female children differently in ways that support gender stereotypes. For example, when told a child was a boy, parents would handle a baby or toddler more roughly than when told the child was a girl. 

Studies have also shown that mothers are more comfortable with the idea of their children behaving in ways that go against typical gender roles (such as young boys crying when they are sad) than fathers. And both mothers and fathers were more comfortable with encouraging female children to play in ways that are usually associated with males, like playing with trucks, than with encouraging male children to play in ways that match the gender roles for girls, like playing with dolls. 

Parents and educators have a responsibility to work together to create welcoming environments for children of any gender identity and to challenge gender stereotypes in the early childhood classroom. Here are a few ways that adults can help make these safe spaces for children. 

Acknowledge your own beliefs

Before adults can effectively cultivate welcoming spaces for children that challenge gender stereotypes, they must look within themselves and question the beliefs and biases they may hold. Subconsciously or consciously, parents and teachers often expect and encourage different behaviors from boys than girls. Adults must constantly reevaluate if their words, actions, and behaviors are aligned with the goal of challenging gender stereotypes. 

Watch your language

Be careful that the language you use with children does not reflect stereotypical gender roles. For example, you could change the words of popular songs that say “he” or “she” or name male or female names in the context of stereotypical gender roles, and change the pronouns to “they” or switch to the opposite pronoun. Instead of addressing a group of children as “boys and girls,” simply say “everyone.” It may seem like a small thing, but this inclusive language goes a long way towards ingraining in children’s minds that males and females are equal. 

Observe and adjust

Watch the way children play naturally and see if there are certain activities or toys males gravitate towards more than females or vice versa. Then make adjustments to the play areas to make them more welcoming to all genders. For example, if boys are dominating the area for playing with blocks, make sure there are a variety of colors of blocks or tape pictures to some of the blocks to encourage story-telling. If girls are dominating the dress-up or costume area, make sure there are plenty of costumes and accessories for doctors, superheroes, and firefighters. Not only does this encourage girls to explore costumes that historically have been associated with careers and play meant for males, but it may attract more boys to a female-dominated costume play area as well. 

Early childhood is such an important time for children developing gender identity. Parents and educators must be conscientious about creating safe and welcoming spaces for children to explore gender expression without being boxed in to obsolete and harmful gender stereotypes. Acknowledging personal beliefs about gender roles, using inclusive language, and observing and adjusting the play space are all things adults can do to contribute to challenging gender stereotypes in early childhood spaces.

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