By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie and Bubbie: A Book About People’s Pronouns
We want children to feel loved and accepted from the beginning. But once they head off to communal play areas (child care, preschool, the playground), other children may comment on what toys and activities are okay for girls and for boys. Peer pressure is powerful, and comments like these are one of the first ways young children start to feel “different.”
When peers make comments about a child’s chosen item or activity being for girls or for boys, it’s important for the adults present to make it clear that the child isn’t doing anything wrong and that everyone is free to play with any toy or participate in any activity. For example, imagine one child says to another, “You can’t play with that. Trucks are only for boys.” You can respond by saying, “Actually, everyone can play with the trucks. There’s no such thing as boy toys and girl toys.”
To reinforce this idea and create gender-inclusive spaces, we first have to consciously drop our own assumptions related to gender and toys, no matter how ingrained they may be. Even though we know that any child has the right to play with any toy, there’s a general assumption that boys want to play with trucks and girls want to play with dolls, for one example. This assumption can lead to adults directing boys toward trucks and girls toward dolls, thereby teaching children to internalize these ideas.
Here are some things to consider when letting go of gendered assumptions:
- Are you deciding what you think children should do or play before asking what they are interested in?
- When children choose a toy or activity that isn’t what you expected, do you disapprove of their choice or have negative thoughts about it?
- Are you able to refer to a child using they/them without the child having to remind you? Do you have any negative thoughts about using gender-neutral pronouns?
In answering these questions, hopefully you can begin to recognize these thoughts and assumptions in the moment. It is important that adults keep from expressing their gendered assumptions in looks and words that teach such assumptions to young children.
Here are a few more strategies for creating a gender-inclusive classroom and community.
Teach children not to assume a person’s gender from their appearance. Share your name and pronouns before asking a child their name and pronouns as the standard introduction in your classroom. It’s up to adults to set this up so the group starts off interacting and communicating using accurate names and pronouns, rather than leaving it up to children to assume how to refer to their peers.
When planning a dress up area, it’s important to include costumes and materials that are not assigned to a gender, such as animals and cashiers. Please don’t assume that the girls will want to dress up as princesses instead of princes or knights. Also, don’t be surprised if the boys choose to give the princess costume a try.
Try not to steer children in creative play and artistic expression. These areas of play can also be limited by gendered assumptions. Too often, adults suggest or steer children toward an area of play or toward colors and materials for artwork based on the child’s gender. It’s difficult to catch ourselves in these moments, but gender inclusion means giving space for children to express themselves in ways that may or may not conform with our expectations.
As adults, we need to stay on the sidelines and watch young children experiment, play, communicate, and socialize in ways that fit their individual personalities and development. When children see us there, ready and waiting to help, to support them, and to celebrate who they are, they’ll gain confidence in themselves and trust themselves as much as they trust us.
If we can catch ourselves when we fall back on gender assumptions and stop ourselves from making gender-based comments, we can create gender-inclusive classrooms and communities that are free of gender-based bullying and marginalization.
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.
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