Breaking down gender stereotypes

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.”

Some children will say ‘but my dad doesn’t wear dresses’ so I will respond by saying that’s your dad’s choice but that doesn’t mean some dads don’t wear dresses.

Gender in different cultures

Tabatha said her kindergarten is very multicultural and she uses this to demonstrate to children that various cultural groups understand gender differently.

“We speak to our parents and get them involved in the teaching process too,” Tabatha said.

“If children say boys can’t wear dresses, I will take the opportunity to go online and show them examples of different cultures where men do wear skirts, sarongs and dresses and reinforce it’s perfectly fine.

“Some children will say ‘but my dad doesn’t wear dresses’ so I will respond by saying that’s your dad’s choice but that doesn’t mean some dads don’t wear dresses.

“They’re very receptive to it and innocent at that age, so they don’t make judgements and you can see the lightbulb moment where they realise it’s fine and some men do wear dresses,” Tabatha said.

Bridget said conversations around gender sometimes arise when the children are engaging in dramatic play or arts and crafts.

“We have a wonderful Torres Strait Islander man who comes to visit and read books to the children at the end of the year before they transition to school, and it’s great because he wears traditional clothing when he addresses the children and shows them photos of different outfits worn by people in the Torres Strait Islands.

“The children see photos of people wearing both traditional clothes and the everyday clothing the kids are familiar with, so they see there are different outfits for special occasions and people of all genders can dress differently whenever they like.”

Seeing the world

“Another stereotype which arises is only girls can like the colour pink, so we will talk to the children about all the different colours and how we can love them all,” Bridget said.

Stereotypes regarding gender roles and jobs comes up quite often too, according to Tabatha.

“If a child says only girls can be ballerinas or dancers I will identify it as a teachable moment straight away, then go online to find images and videos of river dance, Tap Dogs and male ballet dancers to show them men and women can all be dancers,” Tabatha said.

“Another instance occurred when a group of boys wouldn’t let a little girl join in their soldiers game because the boys said girls can’t be soldiers.

“I asked them, why can’t she be a soldier? They couldn’t actually give me an answer.

“Intervening early and being able to challenge their thinking and following it up with images from the Australian Defence Force of women officers helped debunk their beliefs.

“It is important to show them rather than just telling them, as children need that visual cue.”

Supporting staff

Bridget said there is a need for more professional development regarding gender and stereotyping in young children.

“We attend PD on cultural diversity and reconciliation, although there is not much I’m aware of specifically to do with gender stereotypes, inclusion and understanding,” Bridget said.

Tabatha agreed and said kindergarten teachers do need more information, especially if they teach children who are gender diverse.

“I would have to do extensive research to make sure I am doing the right thing and not limiting the child,” she said.

The fundamental value Bridget and Tabatha said kindergarten children should be taught early on, is to respect everybody, regardless of their gender identity, culture or interests.

“If you show acceptance of everything and everyone then I think that makes it easier for children to do the same,” Bridget said.

“That’s one of our philosophies – you have the right to be how you want to be so long as you develop relationships and behave in ways that aren’t going to hurt other people or interfere negatively with how others are thinking and feeling,” she said

“Every child needs to realise no matter what your gender is, or your interests are, you treat others with respect and they have every chance to be successful at whatever they want,” said Tabatha.

Resources and further reading

The following resources provide informative further reading for members who wish to learn more about the topic of gender stereotyping in an early childhood education context.

No limitations guide: Breaking down gender stereotypes in the early years, published by Women’s Health East, is a resource guide for early childhood teachers and assistants. The guide provides practical tools, tips and resources for both an organisational focus and working with families. Contents include comprehensive ideas for practice, tips for engaging in conversations with children about gender stereotyping, actively promoting gender equality in your service, a breakdown of definitions and terms, a list of books that challenge gender stereotypes, benefits of a gender equality approach and a self-reflection guide for teachers. It can be accessed at

GRP4ECE toolkit: teachers challenging gender stereotypes developed by VVOB Education for Development, Forum for African Women Educationalists and public education partners in Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia have united to develop a gender-responsive pedagogy for early childhood education. The toolkit enables early childhood education teachers to become aware of their gender biases and overcome them, whilst supporting them to proactively challenge budding gender stereotypical ideas in their learners. The open educational resource can be accessed at

Level Playground’s website provides access to a curated list of resources for early childhood education teachers to help build knowledge about how to break down gender norms and stereotypes. There are videos, activities which promote gender equality, audits for your environment, lesson plans, teaching guides and more from a variety of early learning and development stakeholders. The resources can be accessed via


Change the Story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, Our Watch 2015, Melbourne, Australia

Nilsson, M & Ferholt, B 2014. Vygotsky’s theories of play, imagination and creativity in current practice: Gunilla Lindqvist’s “creative pedagogy of play” in U.S. kindergartens and Swedish Reggio-Emilia inspired preschools. Perspectiva.