By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way
As much as we want kids to grow up in a world where they are free to be themselves, there is still a strong message given to kids that pink is for girls and blue is for boys—that there are “girl toys” and “boy toys.” From our experiences with kids, we know that their likes and interests do not fall neatly into “boy” and “girl” categories and that gender roles can feel limiting to kids. While we can’t change this overnight, there is a lot we can do as caretakers and educators to give young children the opportunity to play in a gender-neutral environment.
Setting Up a Gender-Neutral Play Space
The guiding principle of organizing a play space should be creativity, not gender. Take a look at the space through a gender-neutral lens. Are there a variety of colors and materials/toys to use, or does the space have a concentration of pink in one area? Kids first respond to a play area visually, and having a vibrant, multicolored space is more welcoming to all children.
Second, take a look at how the space is organized. Is there a boys section and a girls section? For example, are the kitchen, dolls, and dress-up bin in one section while the blocks, cars, and dinosaurs are in another? While this may seem like the best use of space, there is a message being sent to kids that boys play over here and girls over there. This leaves it up to the individual child to leave the side he or she is expected to play in to engage with other materials. A gender-neutral space doesn’t have any imaginary lines. The building blocks can be near the play kitchen and the dinosaurs near or with the baby dolls.
Third, check that there are different materials to encourage creativity beyond gender roles. If there is a dress-up bin, add girls and boys clothes, as well as scarves and blankets that can be used to create characters. Assume that kids will use the dress-up bin for more than becoming princesses and fairies.
Creating a Safe Space for Creative Play
To play freely, kids need to feel that they can play and create however they want without being corrected or admonished. For example, consider a boy who puts on a skirt and starts twirling around only to be told by an adult, “What are you doing? Skirts are for girls!” That boy is not likely to wear a skirt again in that environment. A gender-neutral space means an environment free of judgment from adults as well as from other kids.
Adults have a major role to play in establishing this safe space. First, we need to hold ourselves back from making comments that may be interpreted as disparaging or negative by a child. Second, we need to be on the lookout for negative comments other children are making so that in the moment we can step in and say, “I think [the child] looks great!” or, “Remember that everyone can play what they want. What do you want to play?” By reassuring the creative child, the adult is teaching the other children that this type of play is absolutely acceptable and encouraged.
One way to establish a respected gender-neutral play space is by modeling gender-neutral play for kids. A female teacher can say that she wants to be a grandfather, and begin to play the part. A male teacher can do the same and play a mommy or babysitter. When kids see the adults they respect doing something, they learn that the behavior is okay.
Modeling creative play for students is great for trying out other genders, but adults can take this a step further and really create an environment for truly creative play. If an adult takes something from the dress-up bin and declares himself to be a teapot, kids will probably laugh (which is great), but they’ll also learn that any idea they have is more than okay—no matter how silly it may be. The more creativity in the classroom, the more interesting the games kids will invent, and the more humor and joy will flood the play space.
Reinforcing Creative Play with Other Gender-Neutral Activities
Because children are learning from everything they see and hear, we can reinforce gender-neutral play with other gender-neutral activities. For example, choosing read-aloud stories with gender-neutral characters or with characters who challenge gender stereotypes will continue to broaden children’s ideas about themselves and who they can be.
When teaching children about jobs and occupations, showing children female firefighters, doctors, and police officers and male nurses, teachers, and caretakers, helps kids see that these occupations are no longer gender specific. Children can then focus on the jobs themselves and begin to formulate ideas about their own futures.
Last, it helps a lot to think about the language we use with kids. If we refer to animals as she or they rather than he, we are teaching kids that male is not the default gender and that other genders have a place in the natural world, not just the classroom.
When kids have the freedom to explore, experiment, and let their imaginations take over, gender is no longer a guiding factor in their play. You will be amazed at what kids are able to come up with and experience in a gender-neutral play space!
Afsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master’s in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young daughter) in the art of writing. She lives in New York City.
Afsaneh is the author of Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way
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