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Gender stereotyping in early years

Conversation around gender is a topic that is increasing in awareness within today’s society, with more people openly identifying as ‘genderless’ or ‘non-binary’ and gender stereotyping being discussed and challenged more for both men and women. However as a society we still seem to be struggling to get our heads around changing attitudes to gender. Specifically thinking about gender stereotyping and the Early Years, are we guilty of embedding gender stereotypes in the play, attitudes and lives of our children before they are even able to speak? Do we allow enough time, space and resources for children to play and explore freely without limitations or assumptions based purely on their gender?

As practitioners, we need to be critically reflective of our practice and environments constantly, but we also need to challenge our own beliefs and the stereotypes we may indirectly be expressing and thus enforcing upon our children subconsciously through the opportunities, environments and representations we are providing within not only our physical environment and resources, but also the language and attitudes we are using to communicate.

For example, do the books in your setting only show the male characters as the winners/strong/superheroes and do the female characters all have a particular role? (wife, mother, nurse, teacher) If so, we need to explore different avenues to ensure that both genders are represented fairly and without bias in all of the resources we provide; books, magazines, pictures, small world figures etc, for this could subconsciously be providing children with gender stereotypes and a negative bias before they are even aware of their gender.

Language is an incredibly powerful form of expression and our children learn, develop and pick up on language and words used long before they can speak and so with this in mind, practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that the language they are using around and directly to the children in their care is not enforcing these negative stereotypes that society sadly enforces upon our children, and so should steer clear from “play nicely with the girls”, “those boys are being a bit rough”, by associating behaviours and feelings to particularly genders, we are already displaying to children that there is a difference between their genders and thus providing them with the ideas that boys are rough and boisterous whilst the girls are ‘weaker’ and should play ‘carefully’ as a result. Small, simple things that we don’t generally think about in terms of our everyday practice can potentially have a huge impact on gender stereotyping within our settings.

Look around your setting for a moment; are your pink toys generally aimed at and accessed by the girls? Do the boys in your setting have all of the blue tools, cars, bricks on offer to play with?

This is where loose parts come into their own; children can access, manipulate and build stories around these items freely, with no pre-determined use, idea or stereotype enforced upon them.

Whilst it can be difficult to reflect critically upon our own beliefs, stereotypes we have endured and look past this in order to ensure that we are not only representing genders equally and not offering experiences or resources that put either gender at a disadvantage it is vital that we do so and ensure that we are providing children with resources, skills and experiences that enable them to grow, learn and develop as people, rather than ‘good boys and good girls.’

As society continues to learn about gender fluidity and being ‘binary’ becomes the norm, we have a responsibility to the children in our care to ensure that we are gender free in terms of resources, experiences and language in order for our children to grow into kind, well-rounded, confident and sensitive young people who are confident in who they are as human beings, rather than being defined by their gender.

In the UK, we will never reach gender equality if we do not stand up now and challenge and diminish these stereotypes that society has enforced upon our children from their earliest years and in order to do so we need to ensure that even the smallest references to a child’s gender are informative, positive and not coherent with negative stereotypes.

Only then will we enable these children to confidently grow up, confident in their genders, or have the confidence, knowledge and understanding to decide to be gender fluid or genderless if they so wish, but they can only do so from within the safe environment of understanding, knowledgeable and supportive adults, and it is our responsibility to provide this non-judgemental, gender free environment for all of our children.

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