How important is a gender-neutral approach in kindergarten? Does it really matter if boys are dissuaded from playing with dolls and domestic toys, or girls are expected to love hair and beauty? New research into practices at some Swedish preschools suggests that a gender-neutral environment has far reaching benefits for children.
A study into the effects of different preschool teaching practices, carried out by the Uppsala Child and Baby Lab in collaboration with researchers from UK and US universities and published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, indicates that gender-neutral preschools turn out children who are more likely to succeed.
When researchers compared children who attended kindergartens with gender-neutral practice to children from other pre-schools, they found that those who had attended gender-neutral preschools had a reduced tendency to gender-stereotype and gender-segregate, which researchers say could widen the opportunities available to them.
Compared to children from other preschools, children from gender-neutral preschool were:
more likely to be interested in playing with children of the opposite gender
equally likely to notice another person's gender
less likely to make stereotypical assumptions based on gender
Researcher Ben Kenward told the Quartz website that children from gender-neutral preschools, "seem more open to certain experiences than children from more typical schools. Given that children develop through play and through interactions with peers, and that many play activities (like playing with blocks) that promote development are traditionally gendered, then it would be reasonable to assume that this is likely to improve these children’s development and future success.”
There are often misconceptions around the term "gender-neutral" but in this context it refers to an awareness of how cultural norms around gender are created and reinforced. Gender-neutral kindergartens are inclusive. They don't divide children by gender. Words like "people," "children," or "friends" are used in place of "girls" or "boys" and, in Sweden, the pronoun "Hen" is used instead of "He" or "She."
In gender-neutral preschools, toys are not segregated into typical boy/girl sections, children can take part in any activity they like without being told that some activities are more suited to one gender, and teachers are trained to avoid any behavior that would be seen as gender specific, such as complimenting girls on pretty clothes, or referring to "big strong boys."
The Upssala research is a relatively small study, because gender-neutral schools are rare, even in Sweden. Eighty children aged three to six were interviewed; 30 of them were enrolled at a gender-neutral school, while the other 50 attended two other typical preschools.
Although the sample size was small, researchers say they have statistical confidence in the effects’ existence. One issue that was raised was whether differences in family background caused the effects, but when parents who reported choosing their preschools based on gender-related teaching methods were removed from the sample, the effects remained.
A wealth of previous research, books, articles, and websites on the topic of gender stereotyping in childhood support the conclusion that gender stereotypes negatively impact on all children, regardless of gender. Previous research from the The National Association for the Education of Young Children showed that access to a wide range of toys helps children to develop different skills. A 2010 paper published in Child Development said that children were less likely to play with children who were not their own gender when their teachers took pains to highlight differences between girls and boys. Finally, 2013 research from the University of Kent revealed that negative stereotypes about boys hinders their academic achievement.
It might not be easy to find a preschool that overtly markets itself as gender-neutral, but a few prepared questions about gender issues on visits to prospective kindergartens should give parents an idea of how inclusive the practice is, as well as highlight the fact that many parents want to see gender stereotypes challenged. Gender-neutral practice in preschools aims to reduce differences in the opportunities available to children of different genders and from the evidence so far, it seems to work.