The problem is that children are being reduced to being boys or girls in kindergarten. ‘A child is not simply a gender, but rather a whole being’, remarks Nina Rossholt, an assistant professor at Oslo Metropolitan University, the Department of Early Childhood Education. For years, she has been concerned with the topic of gender in kindergarten. Rossholt maintains we have a great deal of room for improvement in Norwegian kindergartens as of 2014. She would like to challenge what she sees as traditional attitudes to gender.
GENDER IS TAKEN FOR GRANTED
If you ask staff members at Norwegian kindergartens, many will probably tell you that they have tried to encourage boys to play with dolls and girls to play with cars. But they have failed.
A few decades ago, it was said that boys and girls were different, and that they had to be taught to be more alike. Nowadays, there is little talk about gender in kindergartens. ‘Gender is taken for granted’, in Rossholt’s opinion. Her PhD is based on field work she carried out in three different kindergartens. Her conclusion is that gender should once again be addressed as a topic in kindergarten.
‘The idea is not to encourage girls and boys to be the same. There should be room for differences. Instead, the point is to be an individual, to be yourself, and not to be subject to limitations because you are a boy or a girl.
‘In today’s kindergartens, girls and boys have equal opportunities, generally speaking’, according to the researcher. ‘However, the adults’ expectations of them continue to be very different’, she adds.
CHILDREN’S BODY LANGUAGE
Rossholt has studied how staff deal with children’s forms of expression. Children express themselves through body language, through their feelings and through how they behave in relation to others.
‘When adults see a girl or a boy, they often ascribe certain specific physical characteristics to the child’, Rossholt points out. For example, they believe that girls are more thoughtful than boys, or that boys need more physical movement than girls. Thus, biological gender is ascribed to certain ways of being a girl or a boy.
‘When girls and boys experience that adults have expectations that boys should be more active than girls, and that boys are more self-assertive because they are boys, it becomes more difficult for many girls to stretch the boundaries of what they can be accomplish. Words do something to us’, says Rossholt.
Children must control their bodies in kindergarten. In the three kindergartens where the researcher followed the children, she saw that different rules applied to the body movements of girls and those of boys.
‘Children are in constant motion. The pace and energy levels are high. But a boy and a girl who move around in a room at the same speed and use the same voice, often get different feedback from the adults. Boys are defined by the adults as being more physical active and more restless. For that reason, they are often allowed to push limits more than girls. Girls learn to calm down more quickly.’
The idea is not to encourage girls and boys to be the same. There should be room for differences.
“BOYS’ ROOM” AND “GIRLS’ ROOM”
Rossholt has seen that kindergartens differ greatly. They differ in terms of play and materials, and they may differ in their pedagogical approach. Most kindergartens have a “boys’ room” and a “girls’ room”. In the former, there are building toys, while in the latter, play is often quiet, involving dolls and play kitchens. This is where the genders are divided.
‘The outdoor offers far more diversity’, contends the researcher. ‘When they’re outdoors, children play with what they find: It might be snow or sticks. Boys and girls play together more often outdoors than indoors.’ Rossholt also observed that in kindergarten, boys and girls play together more readily if there are adults outside who invite them to join the play.
‘The greatest challenge with getting boys and girls to play together at kindergarten, often takes place indoors. There, children tend to go where they are used to going. If kindergartens want to do something about this, it is important to examine what materials the children have to play with. For example, some kindergartens have baskets that contain different materials: blocks, sticks or bits of fabric. They free a child’s imagination in a whole different way. Boys and girls play together here more often’, affirms Rossholt.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Girls’ and boys’ learning in the doll corner or in the pillow room at kindergarten is important for their understanding of who they are – and what they can become. For that reason, what girls and boys play with, who they play with, and what they play during the course of a day are important.
‘Remember that an exceptional number of children in Norway spend a great deal of their time in kindergarten’, notes Rossholt.
‘Earlier, when children played out on the vacant lot, in the street or between houses, they played with whoever happened to be there, girls and boys alike. Today, when almost all children attend kindergarten, the children must often be told that they are allowed to play with both sexes. This is a paradox.’
WHAT A CUTIE YOU ARE…
Rossholt postulates that gender becomes very clear at the time when the children leave the toddlers’ unit. Before that, the children are treated fairly equally.
But when a child is about three, language becomes more important, as the older children start categorising and labelling things.
Rossholt tells about a girl who had her hair cut short in a kindergarten where most of the girls have long hair. ‘Have you turned into a boy, or what?’ asked one of the older boys. The next day, she arrived at kindergarten with lots of bows in her hair to demonstrate that she is actually a girl.
STOP AND THINK
‘Staff should be aware of how they talk to the children’, Rossholt points out.
‘What attracts attention? How do staff members pay attention to the girls and boys in the changing room, around the dining table, in the blocks area, or outdoors?
‘Instead of saying to a girl “How cute you look today” or telling a boy how handsome he looks, how about quite simply saying “How nice to see you today”.’
‘Stop and think sometimes, and avoid just operating on autopilot. All in all, this is a question of how to interact with the children in a well-balanced manner’, the researcher reminds us.