As I was sitting at a presentation last week, the presenter described the playroom at their facility as “gender neutral”. It took me a second…did she mean paint on the walls? The color of the furniture? What was “gender neutral” anyway?
By definition, “gender neutral” means: suitable for, applicable to, or common to both male and female genders. When I hear this phrase, I usually think of a baby shower. One in which the parents are not going to find out the sex of the baby, so their gift registry may have a variety of colors, and not just “pink or blue.”
So, what was “gender neutral” in an early childhood facility? Let’s take a look…she was referring to the fact that their center would have toys and activities that were suitable for both boys and girls! Not only that…the toys and activities that are commonly labeled as “boy toys” or “girl toys” would be available to both sexes of children, and their imaginative play would be encouraged!
To those of us in the Early Childhood field, this is a “no-brainer”…we are taught from the start of our schooling that girls who play with trucks are – are you sitting down? – NORMAL! And that boys who play with baby dolls are also – GASP – normal!
This is an age-old battle that goes back generations. One of my favorite memories of my Sarah Bear is when she was about 2 years old. Her brother was four at the time, and he LOVED to dig in the dirt under the sliding board on our swing set. He spent hours with shovels, trucks, spoons, sticks, buckets – anything that could haul or scoop dirt – I know, I know…very gender STEREOTYPICAL …but once Sarah was big enough to join in, NOTHING was stopping this child, dressed in sparkly shoes, bows, and carrying a purse, to join right in the fun! The funniest part was she rubbed the glitter off of the top of EVERY pair of sparkle shoes that she owned, by crawling on the ground, pushing trucks! LOL
Most of the toys that my children owned were given as gifts or were hand-me-downs. It made no difference to me what they played with, but “gift givers” – especially grandparents – tended to lean towards “gender stereotypical” toys. For example, if you have a boy – gifts of toys may include trucks, cars, pirates, dinosaurs, tools, workbenches, army men, and rocket ships! If you have a girl- gifts may be more like baby dolls, ponies, kitchen sets, princesses, Barbies and dress up clothes. Now, I’m not saying these are bad toys to play with. They are GREAT! What I am here to tell you is…
It is OKAY for ALL CHILDREN to play with ALL toys! Especially those that require imagination and creativity!
Guess what? Boys who dress up and play baby dolls are ROLE PLAYING what they see their parents do for them EVERY DAY! This is actually a sign of a very WELL ROUNDED child. By acting out these scenarios through play, all children are able to process the world around them and the roles that important individuals play in their lives! They are able to recreate events that have happened in their lives, both good and bad, and make sense of these. This is not only good, but NECESSARY.
The same goes for girls! We want ALL children to be able to play, and experience the world around them in this DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE way! By playing with certain toys, will a child decide their sexual orientation? No! Absolutely not! They are learning through play!
What message do you think it sends if we tell our little girls, “No! You can’t play trucks. You go play baby dolls or house.” In the mind of a young child, that tells them that they are not equal to the boys that may be playing trucks, and that construction activities have no place for them. Their place is in the kitchen. How awful!! I don’t know about you, but this is 2014! Men and women in today’s society are filling the roles of parents, caregivers, CEO’s, police officers, Nobel Prize winners, you name it! And what better time to practice for these roles than now! How do children learn? Through play!
So, the next time you are on a play date and someone diverts your child away from a certain type of toy and on to one that they think is more “gender appropriate” – by all means, let your child explore and play in their own way! They are their own little person, and deserve opportunities and respect just like the rest of us!