Why Gender Equality Matters When Choosing a Preschool

Updated on December 18, 2017
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I love being a mom and teacher and sharing what I've learned about raising confident, creative, and compassionate kids.

Some preschools perpetuate gender stereotypes, putting girls in narrowly defined roles.
Some preschools perpetuate gender stereotypes, putting girls in narrowly defined roles. | Source

Gender Inequality Starts Early

When choosing a preschool for your youngster, there's a lot to contemplate. Of course, you want one with a low student-to-teacher ratio so your youngster is kept safe and gets personal attention. You also want a place that's child-centered, focusing on play and exploration, rather than one that's teacher-centered with calendar lessons, workbooks, and circle time. But, if you have a daughter, you should also consider how boys and girls are treated differently (in subtle ways and not so subtle ways) and how that promotes sexism at a young age. This discriminatory treatment hurts both genders but especially girls as they are often put in the role of observers rather than doers.

As both an early childhood educator and mother of two boys, I've seen firsthand how some preschools address the issue of gender inequality head-on, some are blind to it, and some actually promote it. My older son, Max, attended a nonprofit co-op preschool that followed the practices of the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). His highly-qualified teacher did an amazing job of getting all the kids – boys and girls alike – involved in a wide-variety of activities. My younger son, Jackson, attended a private preschool where boys and girls were treated very differently. While the teachers there were kind and hardworking, they unwittingly promoted a sexist atmosphere in their classrooms that had long-ranging detrimental effects on the children. So, if you're picking a preschool for your youngster, please look closely at the following 6 ways sexism is perpetrated in early childhood education:

1. The Greeting Focuses on Appearance

It warms a parent's heart to see her child receive a warm welcome from the teacher when entering the classroom at preschool. A proper greeting makes the child feel special, calms her nerves, and gets her excited about being there. Max's teacher would recognize each youngster individually, squatting down low to her level and asking questions in a kind, controlled voice such as: “How are you? What do you want to do? Who will you play with today?” Jackson's teachers, however, always focused on the superficial with over-the-top accolades that focused on the child's appearance, especially if she were a girl: “You look SO cute today with your hair in pigtails...I LOVE your pink dress. You look like a princess...I wish I had a pair of those ADORABLE sandals!” Right off the bat in life, these kids got the message that looks matter most.

Letting Girls Wear Princess Dresses to Preschool Creates a Sexist Environment

Girls in princess dresses become observers, not doers.
Girls in princess dresses become observers, not doers. | Source

2. No Dress Code Turns Girls Into Observers, Not Doers

The dress code at preschool reflects the school's philosophy. An experienced and knowledgeable teacher communicates the dress code to parents, explains its importance, and enforces it. At Max's school, the kids were required to wear old play clothes that could get dirty and even ruined. The teacher was unapologetic when an outfit got stained with mud, paint, or clay because preschool was a place to get messy, be active, and take risks. At Jackson's preschool, however, there were no guidelines for appropriate attire. Some girls came to class in dresses, skirts, and even Disney princess gowns! This greatly limited their ability to participate in the day's activities, turning them into observers rather than doers.

3. The Princess Culture Reigns

The Princess Culture reigns in many preschools today with girls wearing tiaras and gowns, pretending they live in castles, and believing their looks count more than their actions. Some teachers don't want to fight this craze even though they know it promotes gender stereotypes. Others see it as cute and innocuous, unaware of its long-range harmful effects. While Max's teacher made certain his preschool was free of it, Jackson's teachers let the princess culture reign freely in their classroom.

His teachers did craft projects that celebrated the Princess Culture such as making royal wands and decorating crowns. They read books such as the popular Pinkalicious about a bratty little girl who loves everything pink. They let commercial products fill the classroom – My Little Pony, Star Wars, and Polly Pocket -that limit the imagination and promote sexism. Girls got their message that they didn't need to be strong and smart, just pretty.

4. Boys Playing With Blocks and Girls Doing Art

While STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) garners a lot of attention these days, preschools have led the way in that arena long before it was fashionable. Children gathering on the floor to build with simple wooden blocks is one of the best ways to learn about problem solving, balance, measurement, equivalencies, gravity, shapes, and sizes. It also boosts communication skills, imagination, and team work.

Since there's an abundance of research showing the benefits of playing with blocks, it's disheartening that few girls do it at preschool. When Jackson's classmates had Free Choice Time (an hour when they picked what they wanted to do), the boys would always rush over to the carpet and start building towers, freeways, and skyscrapers with blocks. The conversations and camaraderie were impressive as they worked together to create something amazing. Most of the girls, however, spent their time doing teacher-directed art projects, which did virtually nothing to stimulate their imagination and independence.

5. Over Doing the Praise

Giving children too much praise may sound like a first-world problem. Nonetheless, it's a concern today as parents and teachers pile on the compliments, making kids overly dependent on external reinforcements. There's even a name given to these youngsters, praise junkies, because they become overly dependent on validation – craving it like a druggie wanting his next fix. They don't enjoy an activity for its own sake, whether it's painting at an easel, swinging on the bars, or riding a tricycle. They're the kids who always scream “look at, look at me” at the playground, putting parental approval above having fun and making friends.

Girls at preschool are more susceptible to becoming praise junkies than boys. At Max's co-op preschool, the teacher trained us parent-helpers to be mindful of how we offered encouragement. Instead of making a comment such as: “You made a beautiful painting,” we said “Tell me about your painting” or asked “How did you feel when you were making it?” Instead of producing more praise junkies, we pushed to empower the kids by promoting conversation, critical thinking, and vocabulary development.

Dramatic Play Areas Should Not Be Limited to Kitchens

By changing up the dramatic play area, teachers stimulate children's imaginations and let them experience new professions.
By changing up the dramatic play area, teachers stimulate children's imaginations and let them experience new professions. | Source

6. Dramatic Play Areas That Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes

Having a dramatic play area at preschool is a fantastic way to stimulate children's imagination and promote social skills. Too often, however, the area is limited to a sink, a refrigerator, dishes, fake food, and dolls. It pigeonholes the kids in stereotypical male/female roles as husband and wife, mother and father. Too often only girls use the dramatic play area while boys build with blocks or dig in the sandbox.

A talented preschool teacher envisions a dramatic play area with endless possibilities. Max's teacher changed it up every month. First it was the traditional kitchen but then became a veterinarian clinic, an Italian restaurant, a grocery store, an art studio, a publishing company, a shoe store, and a science laboratory. She invited parents in these professions to spend time with the kids in the dramatic play area, introducing them to new roles, new vocabulary, and new skills.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 7 months ago from Bend, OR

      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.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 7 months ago from The Caribbean

      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.