This is a little story about how we found ourselves sliding down the path of gender stereotypes in our play at home, and how we implemented these 5 ways to play beyond gender stereotypes. They sure did work for us and I have a feeling they’ll work for you too!
How Gender Stereotypes creep into our everyday Play
Some time ago I walked into our living room where my two children were playing. Miss Glitter (4) was organising her ‘babies’, working in her play kitchen while twirling around in her Frozen dress. Mister T (1) was sitting on the ground, playing with his cars in his fairy dress. Miss G was trying to take his cars because her dolly wanted to play with them, but Mister T held on for dear life.
I started looking around to see if there was something else I could suggest her dolly can play with. And as I scanned our living room, almost item per item, I noticed how bright the pink tea set was, how many ‘babies’ Miss G had collected over time and how absurd Mister T looked in his fairy dress and matching hair clips, desperately grasping for his cars.
I just had to laugh. But all of a sudden I realised how very feminine our play environment really was. It wasn’t funny at all. For some reason we managed to evolve from a gender neutral environment to a mini Martha Stewart’s home making paradise in just 4 years time!
How on earth did that happen? I’ll tell you. It crept up on us.
I remember how things started turning around when Miss Glitter was about 2 years old. We entered a new realm of pink, purple, glitter, dolls and more dolls. I encouraged it. I thought it was cute. And it is cute. But maybe it’s also a bit unfair.
From a very young age, children’s development is shaped by stereotypes. By the time they’re 3 or 4 years old they start figuring out for themselves what it means to be a boy or a girl. This process is subtly influenced by what role models say and do and by the environment they live, play and learn in. On top of that preschoolers have this tendency to think in extremes and are drawn to the way toys and clothes for example are marketed in the media all around us.
I became painfully aware that by only encouraging Miss Glitter’s excellent home making skills I was really limiting her perception of what girls can do, what girls can be.
There’s nothing wrong with preschool girls going through a pink and frilly phase. Neither is there anything wrong with my toddler boy loving his fairy dress.
What I believed was wrong was that I didn’t give my children any other options. I was slowly and subtly setting a certain tone for my little girl and baby boy. A very soft pink tone.
I realised I urgently needed to bring some gender balance into our play area. And so we did.
5 Ways to Play Beyond Gender Stereotypes at Home
We played around with a few ideas and noticed how certain things we did had a huge effect:
1. Offering a Variety of Play Materials
We made sure that aside from our collection of toys that nurture the values of family life and encourage connection and empathy, we also offered materials that invited our children to build, tinker and explore basic principles of physics and mathematics.
Miss G completely surprised me by really enjoying playing with cars and being very intrigued by our new building set.
If you aren’t familiar with the Theory of Loose Parts, go on and read this article first. It will completely transform the way you look at play and play materials!
2. Setting up Invitations to Play
I’ve always been a big believer of child led play. I think that setting up an invitation to play is a very gentle way of introducing children to materials that they might not naturally gravitate towards.
A well set up invitation to play will pique a child’s curiosity. And I’ve found it’s also a great way to discover your child’s interests. I always thought I knew what my children liked and didn’t like, but I discovered I don’t: there’s so much more and it changes all the time!
Have a look at the AMAZING collection of simple invitations to play.
3. Mixing up Boy and Girl Play
By mixing up boy and girl play I’m suggesting to make typical girls’ play more attractive to boys and vice versa.
– adding water and soap or leaves and branches to the play kitchen
– extending block play with gems, beads or pieces of fabric
– displaying both boy and girl dress ups (or as we did: add sparkles to your cape!)
– have neutral dolls and doll clothes (and maybe something to ‘drive’ the dolls around in)
And there’s many more, but you get the idea. Next time you’re hosting a play date for boys and girls, I’m sure you’ll notice a difference in play dynamics with this subtle tweaking of the environment!
4. Encouraging mixed-gender Play Time
When boys and girls play together they engage in a wider variety of activities than when they stick with peers from the same gender.
Girls will be challenged to play in a more vigorous physical way and boys might engage in dramatic play or even practice their fine motor skills with art projects.
These play times provide such huge learning opportunities!
5. Balancing the Books!
Once you start looking, you’ll find a lot of gender stereotypes in a lot of books! I’m not promoting you burn them all, but instead grabbing the opportunity to talk to your children and perhaps explain a couple of things.
Maybe you could add some books to your home library that break some of the gender stereotypes like The Paper Bag Princess (Classic Munsch), Little Red: A Fizzingly Good Yarn and Rosie Revere, Engineer.
How about You?
Whatever your family looks like, I’m sure you’ve bumped into gender stereotypes in your home in one way or another …
I hope that this blog post will challenge you a little bit to take moment to reflect on the play culture in your own family and provide you with some tools to maybe somewhat stretch those sneaky gender stereotypes.
I do realise that every family is different in their family composition, culture and many other ways. So I am sure there are a whole bunch of things that can be added to this post! Feel free to share your thoughts with me, I’d love to here.
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