The girls write their storybooks inside; the five year olds weave story-play, a leader takes the group through adventures. “We’re playing ‘late for the bus,’ screams two girls as they run hurriedly past.”
Outside the classroom the boys are busy building traps and roads in the sand box. They unite in the morning to a game of freeze tag or ‘sand heroes’.
Play conforms to self-gendered roles in the movement through out the days for these five year olds.
In everyday life our cultures support gendered roles/stereotypes. Pilots are male careers; nail salons are female spaces. Within this classroom, this demarcation of space and activity seems student–regulated, enforced unspoken by each child. Girls know not to pierce the sand tower construction (unless they and the boy are alone). Boys know to distance and ignore the entourage-narrative of the girls.
As teachers, we are responsible in recognizing these variances of how young people use and understand gender and how this affects their choices in play; for this we expand their horizons of learning and comfort. In this article we explore how this gendered regulation comes about and the types of learning that it enforces. In what ways are these young anxieties about inter-gendered play a hindrance or an organic exploration? In what way do these gendered groupings help young ones understand the delicate intricacies of social and individual gender?
While Paul observes the younger three and four year olds, Alex spends most of his time with the primary five-year-old class. The differing influence of gender appears within these two age groups is fascinating to both of us.
When observing three and four year olds, rarely do group dynamics center on gender, yet exploration into gender differences begin to take shape as they approach the mysterious age of five. A shift seemingly occurs during this period, changing the orientation of play around social constructs of gender.
John is the oldest in the younger class, pressing five years old. Each day he arrives in his school uniform. He chooses to wear a dress, sometimes stripes, other time decorated in flowery boutique. Socially John is quite outgoing, and often invites others into his imaginative play. Later in the day he takes the role of a ballet teacher in a playhouse structure outside in the side yard of our classroom.
“I’m the teacher – I’m a ballet teacher…everyone follow me to class,” John says to Tommy and Rebecca (two younger students). John demonstrates different ballet techniques on the playhouses floor. “You need to do what I tell you…Girls turn on their toes and boys stay on their feet,” The others playfully follow his instruction.
John was a major precipice for this article because of both his absorption and appropriation of gender norms. As a young boy he is very comfortable wearing dresses, acting effeminate, and interacting with boys and girls alike. He is allowed this explorative play of gender values because of the younger students lack of literacy concerning these norms.
Chuck, part of the five-year-old class, runs out into the ‘big yard.’ He’s the first boy to arrive at school. And then it hits him. He stops, reels back to the door and pauses. “When are the boys going to get here?” And with this question he waits. His energy subsides. He sits, watching the girls play about the yard around him. To him they are like sharks swarming about him. He does not dare move casually. They are playing the same games that he plays yet he will not join them. “If you would like to play with them you can just ask them what they are playing,” I offer. No reply comes. He looks off, wanting time to pass quickly. And then, barreling out into the yard comes two of his male friends and the three almost embrace in bear hugs and run off, calculating their next activity mid-stride.
Outside, Joshua has taught himself a new technique to tumble over a pull-up bar, yet is in need of some assistance in order to situate himself, to sit on top of the bar. Sara, one of Joshua’s preschool classmates, attempts to squeeze in next to him wanting to also have her hand at the pull-up bar. At the school there are two pull-up bars in the play yard, one a bit higher than the other. On the higher bar they have figured out a way to stack tires, in order to reach with their hands. Joshua is quick to respond to Sara, “This bar is for boys.” Loud enough for both of them to hear, I chime in, “these bars are here for anyone to use.” There is a brief silence, as Sara moves on and Joshua, resituates himself for the next attempt on pull bar.
For the five year olds imaginary boarders seemingly separate the groups. Many of the boys sit around a table cutting out spaceship planes. A brave girls walks to the table, she looks around timidly, not showing too much interest. “What are they doing,” she asks me. I am her translator. “Making spaceships. Would you like to try?” And with this invitation she pulls into herself, laughs awkwardly, looks up at me with eyes that say: how could you embarrass me, and then runs off. These culturally regulative rules are appropriated engendered. Did the boys create that fence? Did she project that border onto the table? How are we to account for this poignant schism?
There is a deep anxiety in gendered play for the older class. For them the classroom is carved up into gendered spaces. And yet at times these rigid demarcations open up at times. The boy’s flap dramatically in the kitchen and prepare plates. The girls take over the play set. But predominantly gendered spaces form within this learning environment. The sand box becomes a men’s club. The chicken coop becomes a domestic haven. And then there are the borderlands: the play structure which at times serves as a spaceship and pirate ship and at other times becomes the kitten house and the bus stop. The organic garden, sometimes a sanctuary for harvest and other times an insect zoo.
The gendered play, while seemingly restrictive and culturally regulated creates these improvised, anxiety-ridden spaces where differences between genders show themselves. These moments are, in themselves, teachers and normalizers. These awkward pauses answer questions about being a boy vs. being a girl. And yet, one of the questions this article asks is whether, as educators, we should address this divide explicitly and discuss it with our students directly. Ask them why they are segregating themselves. Ask them what questions they have about this difference. Or should we promote an open space where gender segregation is able to go on, uninterrupted through the course of their interactions?
We suggest, then, that as a community of educators and students that we look further into the influence of gender roles. In the classroom we address conflict resolution. Let us compassionately challenge the status quo of gender association in and out of the classroom, without intruding on the natural exploration of gender.
In the early 1900’s many women’s journals espoused of gendered colors: pink for boys and blue for girls. While the biology of gender remains largely constant, the ways to express and regulate cultural norms of gender vary greatly. We must remember, as educators, that we have a role to play in relieving this anxiety. We can use these prompts about gender to discuss their experiences as students. As educators and parents let us create bridges where gender segregation is apparent, through a cultivation of compassion and love.
Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org