First graders experience an ever-growing awareness of the world around them and examine their place within it. They are driven by exploration and express preferences that contribute to their self identity and the way they’re perceived. Concurrently, by the age of six, the socialization of gender has been at work for several years, influencing choices children make and also imposing limitations on the infinite possibilities before them. Societal gender bias is still deeply rooted and complex, and it shows itself in consistent and myriad ways in early childhood classrooms.
The first graders started brainstorming a list of words that spontaneously come to mind when they think of “girls” and “boys”. Words that capture the traditional feminine ideal flooded onto the paper, and notions of common masculine identity followed. “Pretty” and appearance dominated ideas about girls, while boys were “active” sports players who approached challenges. When the students were prompted to explain their ideas, they used examples of their own preferences, alongside their friends, to explain how these lists capture the ways of the world as they know it.
Then they temporarily disregarded the lists and asked the students to raise a hand if one of these words applied to them, as we read words from BOTH the girls’ and boys’ lists. Girls comfortably raised their hands for words like “soccer,” “powerful,” “hard challenges,” and “Karate”; and boys raised their hands for words like “feelings,” “ponies,” and “peaceful.” It didn’t take long for students to realize that gender specificity doesn’t necessarily match their personal preferences or identity. Girls especially were quick to share frustrations of “girl” expectations, particularly not being as “strong” as their boy peers. Among the insights shared during what will be a continuing conversation, one child summed up by explaining, “All of us are not just unique, we are VERY unique, so we don’t like all of the same things, we like a lot of different things whether we are a boy or a girl…”
Fairness is a recurring idea for young children. The Centipedes are quick to acknowledge when they recognize or feel injustice. Gender exploration not only pushes the typical boundaries of socialization, but also acts as a platform for further conversations. A study of gender in toys/products and the media is to follow…