This article outlines educator’s role in supporting children’s play when they want or need to cross gender boundaries in early childhood settings catering for children between 0- and 5- years old. The current policy concerning gender and regulating educators’ work in Early Childhood Education (ECE) settings is discussed, as well as some of the challenges educators face when translating policy into practice.
Gender in Early Childhood
The foundation of the female-male polarity is set early in childhood, as the child’s own understanding of being a boy or a girl develops and the child begins associating different behavioural expectations with each gender. This process can start forming from birth as children learn stereotypes from their environment and the ways they are socialised by parents, carers, and peers (Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke, 2000). The majority of children use the gender labels girl or boy before they are two years old (Zosuls, Ruble, Tamis-Lemonda, and Martin, 2013). Once the child makes that classification, s/he enters a binary pattern of meaning-making, which can be highly problematic (Yelland, 1998). Bias and stereotypes that put children in the societal binary of female or masculine can be very limiting and the adults working with young children need to recognise the impact such stereotypes can have on children’s lives (Chapman, 2016) and help them extend their gender discourses and develop understanding of gender that transgresses the stereotypical binary.
Play offers children a context to engage in social learning; in play, children can practice new skills and understandings before they start using them in other situations (Johnson, Christie, and Wardle, 2005). The social learning that takes place during play constitutes an important part of children’s experience of constructing and shaping their gender identities (Yelland, 1998). Through their play choices, children enact their understanding of gender as well as further develop their gender identities.
Educators need to be alert that during play children can enact rigid gender roles and limit themselves and their peers by recreating sexist relationships (Office of the Minister for Children (OMC), 2006). The boundaries that stereotypical gendered play creates in children’s play choices can have a negative effect on all children as they get excluded from valuable learning experiences.
Such restrictions can be particularly damaging to the well-being of transgender and gender non-conforming children. Most transgender adults recall being aware of their gender identity between the ages of 3- and 5- years old, but not having the vocabulary to express it (Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA), 2016). In order to meet the needs of all children, breaking gender boundaries needs to become an integral part of the play experiences children have in early childhood settings.
Building and Crossing Gender Boundaries
Martin (2011) argues that in early childhood settings the gender boundaries in play are set by the child’s older or more knowledgeable peers. As a young child enters the setting it is the older children who model gendered play and as the child becomes part of the community of practice of their gender, s/he needs to comply with the gender rules in it to avoid rejection and ridicule. Children would often police each other’s adherence to gender roles and statements like “No, this is for girls/boys”, are often heard in the classroom and unless an educator intervenes they would have the effect of discouraging some children to engage in any play that breaks the established gender roles. Children negotiate the messages they receive about gender and make decisions in order to develop their own gender identity (MacNaughton, 2000). Adults play an essential role during this process by either establishing or challenging gender stereotypes.
While children can set and police the gender boundaries in preschool, they can also initiate crossing those boundaries. Blaise (2005) points out the teaching potential such episodes can have by influencing other children in the classroom to extend their own play. Adult’s role is to positively acknowledge and support the child who crosses gendered play boundaries. By doing so the educator sends a message to all children that they are in an environment where they can develop their own play without gendered constraints.
The cues children receive as to what is and what is not acceptable in their play choices determine their play opportunities. Weisgram, Fulcher, and Dinella (2014) found that when given masculine toy in pink, girls are more likely to consider it a feminine toy, while the opposite was not observed with boys. They postulate that using colour coding gives girls permission to wander out of their gender boundaries. While pink gives girls permission, any clue of femininity seems to prohibit boys’ participation.
Boys might need additional support in crossing gendered play boundaries as they adhere more strongly to their own-sex stereotypes. As a result, this could decrease their opportunities to engage with toys that have the potential to elicit higher levels of play complexity (Cherney and Dempsey, 2010).
Adults need be aware of the “hidden curriculum” (Kelly, 2009, p.10) in the classroom, which communicates meaning to children through the way the school is organised and the type of materials provided. All arrangements made for children make implicit the attitudes and values of the people who make them and have a profound effect on children’s understanding of acceptable social and gender roles (Kelly, 2009). In order to avoid any hidden curriculum messages, educators need to examine not only the materials offered to the children but the language used with them, as well as observe closely and determine what changes need to be made, if one gender dominates an area or some toys are used only in stereotypical ways (Martin, 2011). Educators have the power to engage in “expanding children’s ways of seeing and doing gender.” (MacNaughton, 2000, p.33) They can challenge sexism by direct involvement in the children’s play storylines, by creating shared stories for boys and girls and most importantly by supporting children crossing traditional gender boundaries.
Crossing Gender Boundaries as Part of Quality Early Childhood Education
Aistear (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2009) points out the importance of offering children opportunities to cross the gender boundaries with adults supporting all children to both explore and take risks and exhibit caring behaviours. This includes encouraging non-stereotypical play, ensuring equal access to all materials and providing challenging physical activities for boys and girls.
Siolta (Centre for Early Childhood Development & Education, 2007) goes a step further and acknowledges the need to not only encourage children to cross boundaries but challenge children’s and adults’ gender stereotypes and respond appropriately to any biased behaviour.
The Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Charter and Guidelines for Early Childhood Care and Education (DCYA, 2016) also encourages educators to explore gender actively in their early childhood settings, to offer children non-stereotypical materials and support children to enter opposite-sex activities. It emphasises the need for educators to reflect on their own unconscious gender beliefs and examine their provision through an extensive list of critical questions to consider.
The extent to which educators succeed in that role depends on their understanding of the causes of typical play. They are less likely to challenge children’s understanding of gender if they believe it is the result of biological differences (MacNaughton, 2000; Chapman, 2016). In contrast, if educators perceive typical play as caused by gender roles or stereotypes, they are more likely to plan each experience in a way that will be inclusive of all children (Chapman, 2016).
Examining one’s own knowledge of gender development and unconscious bias is crucial if educators are to adequately recognise and challenge a detrimental stereotypical play. The teachers’ beliefs of gendered play in early childhood, more often than not, reinforce gendered play rather than challenge it with widely spread beliefs that dramatic play is more suitable for girls than boys (Lynch, 2015).
Educator’s values and unconscious bias in regards to gender need to be examined not only because they create and influence the environment and play opportunities in the setting, but because they support the families of the children in their care and have the responsibility to respectfully challenge any stereotypes and bias expressed by both children and adults.
It is not possible to establish how prepared early childhood educators are for this role having in mind that 7% of all people working directly with young children in Ireland have no qualifications and only 20% have a level 7 or above qualifications (Pobal, 2017). No data exist on the extent to which educators have been trained in equality and diversity in the early years, under which umbrella gender is discussed.
International research shows that educators find it challenging to address gender issues with parents and carers, they are uncertain of parents’ reactions which vary from support to antagonism and feel that they do not have strategies to change the opinion of unsupportive parents (MacNaughton, 2000; Emilson, Folkesson, & Lindberg, 2016).
Another challenge that educators point out is the pressure to conform to parental expectations due to funding (MacNaughton, 2000). Even though the views of Irish educators have not been researched, this consideration can be applied to the Irish context where nearly two-thirds of educators are being employed in private settings that operate as businesses and put parents in the position of customers of the childcare setting (Pobal, 2017).
Adequate and universal support to educators is required if they are to translate policy into practice and meet the needs of the children in their care who want or need to extend their gender discourses through play. Educators need to be aware of the gender issues in the early childhood classroom in order to challenge children building gender boundaries in play and support the ones crossing them. The role parents and carers play in establishing or challenging stereotypes should also be addressed by giving educators strategies for opening a discussion about gender issues with parents and carers.
Children are not born with knowledge of gender roles but develop it in the first years of their lives. Adults can either challenge or reinforce the bias that might underline gendered play, by doing so they either give permission to or prohibit children to be themselves in how they approach play. There is a need for access to specific training and support for educators to actively challenge gender roles in the classroom. In addition, strategies to engage parents and carers in discussions around gendered play can help educators support the children in their care and their families. Even though the policies in place in the ECE sector are committed to supporting children’s development of non-stereotypical gender discourses in play, the educators who translate policies into practice need to overcome the existing challenges in order to make a lasting change in the way gender is understood in the early childhood classroom.
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Vasilena Vasileva is an Early Childhood Educator with years of experience working with young children in Bulgaria, the United Kingdom and Ireland. She holds a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Marino Institute of Education and her research interests include the development of self-regulation in early childhood, the role of play in developing social knowledge and young children’s language development.