Two early childhood education teacher members share their insights into how kindergarten children perceive gender – and some strategies for combating stereotypes – with journalist Emily Campbell.
Young children make sense of the world through imagination and play, by observing, imitating, asking questions, and relating to other children and adults (Vygotsky & Cole, cited in Nilsson & Ferholt, 2014).
However, gender stereotypes can perpetuate inequality and pressure children to comply with standards of masculinity and femininity, which is limiting and potentially harmful.
Early childhood teachers are in a unique position to help shape children’s understanding of gender, teach them to celebrate diversity and to challenge their views to help their growth and development.
Influence of family and community
Bridget Kings, an experienced teacher working at Vera Lacaze Memorial Community Kindergarten in Toowoomba, said there are many external factors which can influence kindergarten children’s understanding of gender.
“For kindergarten-aged children, most of that is family, so how they’ve heard their family talk about gender and gender roles at home impacts their understanding,” Bridget said.
“Other influences on how young children learn about gender include the movies, books and stories they consume, the cultural and religious beliefs and the communities they are involved in.
“Additionally, children’s peers, playgroups, older siblings and friends can shape their understanding, so children develop a picture and implicit biases and subsequently stereotype gender based on what they have heard and lived with,” she said.
Tabatha Seddon, who teaches kindergarten at Goodstart Early Learning in Collingwood Park, agrees with Bridget.
“It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where children’s understanding of gender stems from, although I think most of it comes from what they see at home and what their parents might talk about,” Tabatha said.
“Their family environments, what children see on screens and in the media can perpetuate gender stereotypes, so it takes a lot of intentional teaching to break those.”
Visual cues and physical traits
Both Bridget and Tabatha agree one of the first major ways children differentiate gender is by observing physical traits and choice of clothing.
Tabatha said one of the misconceptions children commonly hold is that people with long hair are girls and those with short hair are boys.
“I find children can be very set in their ways about certain hair styles being associated with particular genders,” she said.
“Some girls I teach have short hair and even if she is wearing typically feminine clothing like a dress with flowers on it, some of the other children will still say she is a boy.
“When this occurs, I will challenge their beliefs by asking the child with short hair to tell the others what gender she sees herself as, so she reinforces to the others she is a girl.
“I will ask them to think about women they know who have short hair, then go online and to find resources like movies of girls with short hair and boys with long hair to demonstrate that people of all genders can have different hair lengths and styles.
“It can take a lot to break the stereotypes and requires a lot of visuals to convince children.”