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How to Choose an Empowering and Equitable Preschool for Your Daughter

Ms. Meyers visits dozens of preschools each year and sees how some promote the individuality and independence of girls while others don't.

Parents should avoid preschools where girls are observers, not doers.

Parents should avoid preschools where girls are observers, not doers.

Gender Inequality Is Still a Problem

While working in early childhood education and parenting my own young children, I saw firsthand how some preschools addressed sexism head-on, others were blind to it, and a small number unwittingly promoted it. My older son attended a nonprofit co-op that followed the practices of the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). His highly qualified teacher did an incredible job of making sure all the kids—boys and girls alike—were engaged in a wide variety of activities where they played, explored, used their imaginations, learned through their senses, interacted with one another, and got messy. My younger son, though, attended a private preschool where boys and girls were treated quite differently from one another. While the teachers there were kind and hardworking, they unknowingly employed practices that would negatively impact the girls long into the future.

Today, I visit dozens of preschools each year and see that we haven’t achieved the equality in early childhood education that many imagine we have. Girls are still more likely than boys to be observers rather than doers. They’re too often lauded for their hairstyles and wardrobes than what they build with blocks or how they lead a game in the yard. The so-called “princess culture” has infiltrated some preschools with girls wearing inappropriate attire that prevents them from running, climbing, and digging in the sand. With this in mind, I urge parents to be especially mindful when picking a preschool for their daughters and to choose one that encourages all kids to be full participants.

Here are the six areas of concern that should alert parents:

1. An overemphasis on appearance

2. A princess culture

3. Girls watching and not doing

4. No girls in the block area

5. Excessive praise from teachers

6. Play areas that perpetuate stereotypes

1. An Overemphasis on Appearance

As the 4 and 5-year old girls stream into the pre-K classroom, they’re greeted with squeals of enthusiasm from their teachers: “Maya, I love your pigtails! Bella, your shoes are so red and sparkly! Rachel, your silver fingernail polish is so fancy!” Wanting the youngsters to feel welcome and seen (and to score points with their parents), these educators are well-intentioned but misguided.

Their underlying message to these young, impressionable girls is long-lasting and damaging: appearances matter most and it’s your hairstyle and clothes that will get you noticed and appreciated. They communicate that their looks, not their good deeds, profound thoughts, creative endeavors, and hard work, are how they’ll succeed in life. There’s no doubt that kids feel good when greeted warmly at school. It makes them feel special, calms their nerves, reassures them that they're safe, and gets them excited about being there. A well-informed teacher knows, however, that focusing on their looks should be avoided.

2. A Princess Culture

Without a dress code, the so-called “princess culture” can reign supreme at a preschool with girls wearing tiaras, gowns, and heels. Peggy Orenstein writes about this phenomenon and its dangers in Cinderella: Ate My Daughter. She describes how it can lead to girls growing up too fast, sexualizing them at a young age and convincing them that beauty is the path to success.

With this in mind, moms and dads should steer clear of any preschool that’s allowed princess culture to infiltrate its doors. Instead, they should find a place where the preschool owner and faculty appreciate its long-range negative effects and refuse to see it as innocuous. They stand firm against it by rejecting princess craft projects such as royal wands and crowns and refusing to stock the dress-up corner with gowns and other princess paraphernalia.

Moreover, they remain impervious to commercial products entering the classroom such as My Little Pony, Barbie, Polly Pocket, and Disney. These mass-produced items encourage materialism, promote sexism, and restrict children's imaginations. Because they’re based on TV shows and movies, they come with existing scripts that were created by adults. Therefore, they block kids from using their own imaginations and conceiving their own storylines.

This video discusses a study that shows girls who play with Disney princesses are more likely to engage in stereotypical female behavior. This can lead to preschool girls experimenting with things less, refusing to get dirty, and focusing too much on body image.

3. Girls Watching and Not Doing

It’s troubling to visit preschools and see children standing on the sidelines, watching instead of participating. Sadly, these onlookers are more likely to be girls than boys due to the school’s lack of a dress code. Without any guidelines, some parents send their daughters to class in dresses, skirts, crocs, sandals, heels, and cowboy boots. With an inappropriate wardrobe and impractical shoes, a girl can’t run through the obstacle course that her classmates set up in the yard. She can’t build castles, bridges, and moats in the sandbox. She can’t paint at the easel, ride tricycles on the asphalt, and climb on the rope ladder.

It’s critical, therefore, that moms and dads avoid preschools that have no dress code or one that goes unenforced. While it may seem inconsequential to some, a dress code is hugely significant and reflects a school’s overall philosophy and values. A preschool, for example, that requires kids to wear old clothes so they can get dirty and tennis shoes so they can run and climb signals that it’s a child-centered environment where play and creativity get prioritized. It’s a place where everyone is involved—doing, moving, interacting, and getting messy—and not a fashion show.

4. Excessive Praise From Teachers

We all like to receive compliments, but too much praise can be detrimental to young children and that’s especially true for girls. It can make them overly dependent on external reinforcements rather than developing their own inner self-worth. Girls are more susceptible to this while seeking approval from older females such as their mothers and teachers. This, in turn, can transform them into "praise junkies."

These approval-seeking kids become dependent on validation, craving it like addicts who want their next fix. They don't enjoy an activity for its own sake, whether it's painting at an easel, swinging on the monkey bars, or riding a tricycle around the playground. Instead, they're the ones who are screaming “look at me, look at me” to their parents and teachers. Tragically, they want an adult's stamp of approval more than having fun and making friends.

Because excessive praise can be detrimental to girls, parents should find a preschool where teachers empower their students rather than evaluate them. These enlightened educators refrain from tossing out compliments indiscriminately: "Your painting is gorgeous...Your block castle is amazing...You're so awesome.” Instead, they’re thoughtful, measured, and specific. Looking at a child's drawing, for example, they make observations rather than judgments: "You blended the green and blue to make the ocean." They also ask questions such as, "What were you feeling when you drew that house and family?"

5. No Girls in the Block Area

Today, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a major focus at elementary, middle, and high schools. Long before becoming popular there, though, it had been prominently featured in early childhood education for decades. One of the most effective ways that preschools have promoted STEM is through block play. It teaches kids about balance, measurement, shapes, sizes, equivalencies, and gravity. It also boosts their problem-solving skills, communication competency, creative thinking, and teamwork abilities.

Because there are studies that show the numerous benefits of block play, it's disheartening to visit classrooms where only boys are gathered on the floor building with them. It’s crucial, therefore, that parents choose a preschool where block play is encouraged for all kids. A savvy teacher can make this happen in the following ways:

  • Having more than one block area so a girl isn’t put off by joining an all-boy group
  • Purchasing different sizes, shapes, and colors of blocks to make them more appealing
  • Adding human figurines, toy horses, plastic dinosaurs, etc. to add variety and increase interest
  • Making block play a required part of the day by rotating groups into the area

This video lists the innumerable benefits of block play. As such, it highlights the importance of a preschool that encourages girls to engage in it.

6. Play Areas That Perpetuate Stereotypes

Dramatic play areas at preschool, such as a restaurant, a veterinary hospital, a science laboratory, are magical when it comes to stimulating children's imaginations and promoting their social skills. It's unfortunate, though, that too many schools limit their pretend play areas to just one: a play kitchen with a sink, a refrigerator, dishes, fake food, and baby dolls. This perpetuates stereotypical gender roles in a domestic setting as the girls pretend to cook meals, clean house, and care for the children. Boys, on the other hand, steer clear of the area altogether, preferring to build with blocks or dig in the sandbox.

For this reason, parents should be wary of a preschool that only has a kitchen and no other dramatic play areas. If space prohibits more than one, a resourceful teacher can transform the spot into different venues each month. One month it can serve as a barbershop, the next a garden center, the following a pet groomer, and after that, a construction business.

Sexism In Subtle and Not So Subtle Ways

Parents have a lot to contemplate when choosing a preschool for their children. Of course, they want a low student-to-teacher ratio so their youngsters are safe, an outdoor space so they can run and play, and an experienced teacher so they’re encouraged to be curious and develop a passion for learning. If they have daughters, though, they should also consider how boys and girls are treated differently in subtle and not so subtle ways. They should examine how these practices may confine their daughters to narrow gender roles and limit their future prospects. They should ask themselves a big-picture question: Is this experience in early childhood education one that’s encouraging my daughter to be bold, take the initiative, express herself, and become more self-assured or is it making her less confident and more compliant and conventional?

What do you think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: The teachers at my daughter's preschool seem to be in competition with one another over who can give the most compliments about clothes, shoes, and hair, what should I do?

Answer: A similar game of one-upmanship broke out among the teachers at my younger son's preschool. It started with one educator's over-the-top praise and quickly spread throughout the building. Unfortunately, it was well-received by parents and so it was allowed to continue. Before I knew it, moms were dressing their daughters in elaborate clothes, fixing their hair in fancy styles, and having them come to class in fashionable (but highly unsuitable) shoes. Our preschool turned into a fashion show!

Sadly, the director was too burned out with her job to put a stop to it. If a parent had expressed disappointment in this behavior, though, she certainly would have taken action. She just needed someone to speak up with their concerns.

While it would be easier for you to say nothing, I hope after reading my article you understand how detrimental this over-the-top praise can be. I hope that you now appreciate how it creates “praise junkies” and promotes a sexist atmosphere. With this in mind, I'd speak to the director and share your worries.

Hopefully, the director will address the matter at a staff meeting. Some of the teachers are probably clueless about the research that shows too much praise can be detrimental. They incorrectly believe that more is always better.

By speaking up, you can bring about positive change. With any luck, the director will give a presentation to the teachers about constructive praise: how it should focus on what a child is doing and not what they're wearing, how it should be specific, how it should be observational and not judgmental, and so on.

I admire you for perceiving this as a problem and wanting to do something about it. I hope a change is made!

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on July 10, 2017:

Thanks, Dora. Since my sons went to different preschools, I got to see how one discouraged gender inequality and the other actually promoted it. At my younger son's preschool, things were a lot more sexist there than when I went to preschool 4o years earlier! It upset me that we were moving backward instead of forward. It really takes a strong leader at a preschool to set guidelines and follow through with them -- rather it involves gender equality or something else.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 10, 2017:

Very insightful.I never gave much thought to gender equality in preschool, but your article is an eye opener. Thanks and I hope those to whom it matters, follows your sensible suggestions.