3 to 4 "Boys Don't Do That!" by Susan A. Miller, EdD

Four-year-old Bradley emerges from the dramatic-play area with a purse full of treasures. Tomas teases, "Only girls or mommies carry purses!" Bradley says emphatically, "I am not girl! I am a boy!"

In the prekindergarten years, children are developing a strong sense of self and of their identities as boys and girls. It's perfectly normal for boys to want to engage in "boy" activities and for girls to want to do "girl" things, but it's also important to help children see that activities needn't be restricted by gender.

Sorting Things Out

By age 3, children know whether they are boys or girls. But because their thinking is concrete, their understanding of gender is limited to behavior and physical appearance. Fours, in particular, use such features as clothing and length of hair to distinguish gender.

At about this age, children may still have uncertainties about gender. For example, they're not sure whether a boy stays a boy or changes into a girl as he grows up. Some older fours and fives seem to realize that, based on their unchanging anatomy, they're permanently male or female. This often leads to a natural curiosity about private body parts.

Developmental Differences

Children's level of development affects their attitudes toward gender roles and activities. Most threes don't care if Ronald wants to play with dolls or if Debbie builds with big blocks.

Many fours, though, prefer playing with same-sex peers and can be strongly influenced by and judgmental of playmates' clothes, accessories, and toys. Because of this, their behavior might seem rigid, even in dramatic play. Girls can clean house, but they can't be soldiers. Boys can be train engineers but can't bake cookies - or carry a purse.

Tomas's teasing of Bradley indicates that he's trying to make sense of gender differences by defining what he views as male and female. You can help children learn to respect individual differences by exposing them to non-stereotypical models.

What You Can Do

Offer gender-neutral materials. In the dramatic play area, provide fabrics that encourage imaginative, non-stereotyped play. In the block area, include building materials that appeal to both girls and boys.

Set up your room to encourage opportunities for everyone. Place areas often dominated by girls or boys, such as the housekeeping and block corners, next to each other to promote the sharing of materials, ideas, and activities.

Consider your own attitudes. Do you discourage a take-charge little girl? Do you respond more often to a noisy boy than to a compliant girl? Try to be sure that the messages you give are nonsexist, non-stereotyped, and supportive of the activities and roles children explore as they develop their own identities.

 

5 to 6 From "Me" to "We" by Ellen Booth Church

A conversation between Derek and Samantha, overheard in the block area: "You can't play with us. Girls don't build cars, only boys can!"

"Oh yeah? Well, my mom's a mechanic. She says we all have equal rights!" "What? What does that mean?" "It means I can play too!"

You may have heard similar conversations in your classroom as children tried out gender roles and used stereotypes to include or exclude others. Despite parents' and teachers' best efforts to avoid gender stereotyping, almost all children go through a stage of categorizing activities and personal styles by gender. However, this is more related to kindergartners' developmental needs to categorize their world than to any long-term social convictions.

Defining Gender Roles

In kindergarten, more than at any other time, children define their identities by how they look. And how they look is influenced not only by taste, but by gender roles as well. Some girls will only wear clothing and accessories of a certain color. Many young girls believe that looking pretty-and, unfortunately, thin-is part of being female.

Boys are also aware of appearance. Wearing the right kind of sneakers or T-shirt and sporting a "cool" haircut make them feel part of the male "club."

In kindergarten, children begin to create a clearer definition of self - who they are as playmates, learners, helpers, boys, or girls. This is the time when most children become aware of sex roles in relation to play, work - and one another. They often categorize art, music, and dramatic play as stereotypical "girl" activities, and blocks, manipulatives, and outdoor play as "boy" activities.

At a younger age, it was perfectly acceptable for a boy to dress up in a skirt and hat or for a girl to commandeer the block area. But kindergartners are much more aware of society's definitions of acceptable behavior and appearance for boys and girls. Five- and 6-year-olds see stereotypes in the media and the community and struggle to understand them, experimenting with gender roles in play. Children will try out different roles to see what it feels like to be a boy or girl, and to expand the traditional definitions of male and female.

Awareness of Anatomy

Developmentally, 5- and 6-year-olds are at a stage where they know if they are boys or girls and are becoming aware of the corresponding anatomy. They are curious about anatomical differences and will use body-part names and references in silly ways to get attention or to express their curiosity. It seems that every year, at least one set of children tries to play "doctor" or "show me" in the bathroom. You can help children pass through this stage quickly and comfortably with frank talk about anatomy and clearly stated boundaries of play and privacy.

What You Can Do

As a teacher, one of your most important jobs is to provide diverse models and information about gender roles. Try some of these ideas:

Supply a variety of dress-up clothes for dramatic play. Represent different roles so that neither boys nor girls will be restricted in their play.

Talk about gender issues. Be sure to involve children in brainstorming to solve gender-related problems when they arise. Reading literature that raises gender issues or that counters stereotypes is also a valuable springboard for such discussions.

Invite guest speakers. Parents and other members of the community can talk with your class about their careers and their roles at home, particularly if they are not stereotypical.

Observe yourself. Ask someone to make a video or audiotape of you during class. You may be surprised to see that you have some gender biases. For instance, do you call on girls more than boys to do a particular task - or vice versa? Do you feel uncomfortable with a boy who cries? One teacher was shocked to realize that she always referred to the children as "guys" when she spoke to them as a group.

Be sensitive to your group's ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Your own - or the school's - values may be in conflict with the gender expectations in your children's homes. Listen and learn from the children's families and discuss your viewpoint and theirs. Try to find solutions on common ground, but always support family cultures and traditions while attempting to create an environment of equity in the classroom.