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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

If you had to give it a gender - guest post

Alistair over at abc does from the UK recently asked me if I would do a guest post.  I agreed and you can find it here.

I wanted to return the favor and I knew which post I wanted to use as a guest post from Alistair. The title of his post is: "If you had to give it a gender..."  With his post, he challenges us to think about how we "dress up" our classrooms in terms of gender stereotyping.  And in so doing, what are the unspoken messages we give to the children in our care.  His question sets up a useful exercise for us all.

Make sure you check out his other posts, too.


I have been lucky enough over Easter to do some work with two schools in Cornwall.
Both schools are in quite different areas but have joined together to pool their thinking, resources and knowledge about Early Years.

Sally, Hilary and their respective team fed me copious amounts of home made cake while I
shared their good practice and asked them lots of questions about what they did and why they did it. I got fat, they got a headache! Seems like a good trade off to me.

One of the 'games' that I played with both teams is a game
that I like to play wherever I go. It is called

'If you had togive it a gender, what gender would it be?'

It is an interesting game for many reasons, but not least because of the HUGE impact how we 'dress' our 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.

So, it is possible to give the spaces that we create a gender whilst not necessarily intending them to be for 'boys' or 'girls'.

One of the issues that often arises in Early Years spaces is that because they are predominantly created by humans with a strong female gender imprint they can then appear very feminine to children who have a more culturally stereotypically masculine gender.

what gender would you give this writing area?

Gender stereotyping is a complex and subtle thing and most children have got a very strong gender imprint by the time that they are two. The socially accepted view of the gender that has been attached to their biological state will have been thrust upon them from 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. 

Drapes and curtains make great space dividers,
but what do they say aboutthe 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 brains 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).

This is a great display, but what gender is it?

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 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!

So, I am not saying that I think you shouldn't dress your spaces - on the contrary. What I would urge you to do is play the gender 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.

 Area created to reflect a key groups of children's interest in Ben 10

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, playdough, workshop materials... the list is endless.

 reading area rugs

 what gender would you give this alphabet line?

or the resource storage on this 'creative' table?

 How about this curtain 'homage' to Mr Blobby?!

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!) but it is also crucial that we acknowledge what we know about how an environment can effect learning and 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!


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