The more I observe children of all ages and stages play, the more interested I become in the role that ‘gender’ has in their decisions and choices. How much influence do we really have as practitioners and how much of their ‘gender identity’ is already in place?
I was introduced to the idea of Gender Schema about four years ago – and it made me think about the role of the adult, and especially the environment we create in a whole different way.
In short, Gender schema theory suggests that by the age of 2 years most children have a clear idea if they are a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’. It argues that cultural influences largely shape how children develop their ideas about gender. The theory was first introduced by psychologist Sandra Bem. A child’s gender schema is built up over a long period of time through the many opportunities, choices and messages that they are given by the society, culture, language and imagery around them.
As adults in Early Years (and beyond) we will plan, teach and create spaces that appeal to our own gender schema. This is often a subconscious act, but the results can have significant impact.
If you have a ‘female’ gender schema which is linked to all of the cultural stereotypes for being ‘female’ then you are likely to include these in the environments that you create – because you like them!
But – children with a ‘male’ gender schema will consciously and subconsciously see those ‘markers’ as not belonging to their gender schema and therefore avoid the space.
As the majority of Early Years practitioners are female, if we follow Bern’s thinking, then the majority of Early Years environments will be female too. This could be why male gender schema children don’t visit!
One of the ‘games’ that I play wherever I go is called
‘If you had to give it a gender, what gender would it be?’
It is an interesting game for many reasons, but not least because of the HUGE impact the environment can have on the engagement and attainment of the children in it.
Gender is NOT the same as sex. The World Health Organisation says that:
Gender is the characteristics , roles and responsibilities of women and men, boys and girls, which are socially constructed. Gender is related to how we are perceived and expected to think and act as women and men because of the way society is organised, not because of our biological differences.
The socially accepted view of the gender that has been attached to their biological state will have been thrust upon them from children the moment they were born, from the colour of baby grow we put them in to the type of language and cultural references that we use about and to them. The toys we buy them, the advertising they see on the television and the cultural roles of male and female that exist within their family.
but what do they say about the gender of the space?
When we are thinking about the environments that we create and how they appear to all children. Then all of that gender stereotyping and conformity comes into play. Not all of the time with every child, but most of the time with most children.
Say that you want to create a lovely bright and airy painting space, so you buy some of those lovely voile tents from IKEA with the ribbon and the bunting around the top. You match in your pots and accessories and…there you go…
Beautiful! But if you had to stand back and ask yourself: ‘If it had a gender, what gender would it be?’ The answer is going to be female. So for lots of male gender schema children that have a background of male gender re-enforcement, may have a little voice in the back of their head saying : ‘the painting area is not for me!’
That little voice is enough to send them off in the opposite direction to the construction or the bikes (the areas that tend to have a far more ‘male’ gender orientation).
Danger! Lots of boys doing boy stuff!
The scariest thing is that this is often not a conscious thought on the children’s part. It is a subconscious process that helps them to make initial decisions about their preferences, likes and dislikes based on what they already think they know.
There are times when getting your hands on a particular resource like a saw, means that you are prepared to over ride your gender programming for the end gain. But these are usually exceptions not the ‘norm’.
The only area where it seems to make little or no difference to the children that I have observed is the snack area. The need to feed seems to override all and every gender stereotype!
I am not suggesting that I think you shouldn’t ‘dress’ your spaces – on the contrary. What I would urge you to do is play the ‘interest’ game in your setting.
If you have specifically dressed an area around the interests of a ‘key’ group of children then you are likely to end up with some areas that conform to the gender stereotype. If this is done for interest and there is equality of opportunity for skill development across your setting (regardless of gender) then this is no bad thing.
If on the other hand you haven’t specifically dressed for interest and your environment or resourcing is coming across with a very definite gender then you need to rethink.
Try and use colours, patterns and fabrics that are ‘neutral’ thereby still getting the impact and intrigue of dressing a space without unintentionally marginalising any of your children.
Of course the gender game is not just restricted to drapes, cushions and table covers. You can also play it with number lines, play dough, workshop materials… the list is endless.
No one is banning pink and blue and the world doesn’t have to be beige as long as learning spaces are not gender specific (unless the gender is a reflection of a specific identified interest) and there is equality in your access to skill development and resources.
It doesn’t matter how many flowery shirts and pink jumpers I wear, or how many times I say that boys can wear pink, in every setting I go into there are children, both boys and girls, who laugh so hard at the idea of a boy in pink or flowers, some wee comes out!
A rare glimpse into the ABC Does weekly shirt ironing pile! (what gender would you give that?!)
It is VERY important to teach the message of equality (and that anyone can wear pink, blue or orange!) but it is also crucial that we acknowledge what we know about how the environment that we create based on out own gender schema can effect learning. We have to use that information to our teaching and learning advantage.
So, go on. Have a play with your team and see what gender your setting comes out as!