Early Childhood Helping kids bust gender stereotypes

Disrupting gender norms and promoting healthy relationships can start with the smallest things and the littlest people, as early childhood teacher REBECCA SIMPSON-DAL SANTO explains.

As an early childhood teacher and a parent of two young children, I am often noticing and disrupting gender stereotypes and finding ways to support children to do this, too. Disrupting gender bias is an important means of supporting children to develop respectful relationships and opening up the possibilities for their own lives.

Noticing and listening to all the small ‘episodes of gender’ that occur in the classroom can help us identify who is privileged and who is disadvantaged in the curriculums we create, as required by the Early Years Learning Framework.

One such episode I noted recently at my kinder related to a book we are creating in which each child adds a new page with a drawing and text. On one of my pages, I introduced a character with they/them pronouns. This has been rewritten as ‘he’ in the following pages added by the children.

I have noticed that if a person of the opposite sex is permitted into a game, it will invariably rest on the condition that “only one girl/boy can play”, as if any more children of the opposite sex would upset the power dynamic.

In this same book, I introduced a family consisting of SpiderWoman, SpiderMan, SpiderGirl, and SpiderBoy. My rationale for this, besides building on the children’s literacy skills, was to explicitly subvert gender stereotypes through the pages I would add myself. ‘SpiderBoy’ has long hair. When I read this page to the children, many of them argue that this character must actually be ‘SpiderGirl’. Part way through the story, I realised that SpiderWoman had been written out of the storyline completely.

I have noticed that if a person of the opposite sex is permitted into a game, then it will invariably rest on the condition that “only one girl/boy can play”, as if any more children of the opposite sex would upset the power dynamic of the game.

Recently, some of the girls were dancing to Teeny Tiny Stevies. One of the boys joined them and another boy told him, “That’s girl music, you can’t dance”. This child is consistently told by both boys and girls that boys can’t dance, but it doesn’t deter his love of dancing. When I asked the children what “girl music” is, no one could articulate this to me.

Recently, I was changing the nappy of a child in my group. He is on the autism spectrum and has limited verbal communication. While doing this, I said, “I’m changing your nappy now. Does Mum change your nappy at home?” He said, “Yes”. Asking if Dad changes his nappy, he looked at me quizzically, laughed, and said, “Daddy is not a mummy!”

Rebecca Simpson and her daughter at an AEU rally.

In other instances, a child told me about her dad hanging out the washing, saying, “Isn’t that funny – a dad doing the washing?” Another girl asks if I know what a boss is, telling me, “Bosses are boys”. She is surprised when I inform her that my boss is a female. After many readings of Some Boys by Nelly Thomas, it is frequently mentioned in our group that boys can wear nail polish if they want to.

While actively noticing and questioning gender stereotypes and gender rules in play is integral, I know I can’t rely solely on being reactive, as there are probably many ideas about gender that the children don’t share with me. In response to the kinds of episodes described here, I have devised proactive strategies such as finding or developing resources to subvert gender stereotypes, and continually assessing the resources, books and music we have available in the curriculum.

To further my own knowledge and teaching, I have also been reading widely about gender. I want the children I teach to value and respect the many different ways of ‘performing’ gender and to develop respectful relationships – and so I need to keep listening, thinking and discussing this with my students, their families, my co-workers and my own children.

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