Adventures from the frontline: running my first anti-sexism workshop with young children

I ran my first anti-sexism workshop for children last week. They were a Montessori class of 5-6 year olds and I concentrated on questioning gender stereotypes, identifying sexism and a little bit of acceptance stuff of gender queer identities. I didn’t use those terms though, I talked instead about people thinking there are rules about boys and girls and how these aren’t really rules, and everyone should get to choose for themselves what they like and how they like to look.

It all came about after I heard about some worrying examples of ‘gender policing’ going down in my daughter’s class. I approached her teacher to see whether she had any plans for tackling this stuff with her class and she asked me if I’d like to run a workshop for them. I am really grateful to her for that invitation; this was a lovely opportunity not only to help turn something bad around in my daughter’s class but to see what other young children think about sexism. It was pretty fascinating.

The workshop went really well – the kids were really receptive and by the conclusion of the workshop were readily able to spot sexism in toy catalogues presented to them and were happily repeating phrases in their analysis that I’d been using throughout the workshop, like “colours are for everyone”, “feelings are for everyone” and “toys are for everyone”.

In many ways the children were a lot less weighed down by stereotypes than I’d expected – my first question to the class was “can boys like pink” and the class consensus was a quick and resounding “yes”. It was difficult to tell whether they were particularly progressive children (ie. maybe those enrolled in a Montessori school are not representative of their peers), or if they are too young yet to have met some of the more rigid ideas about gender. For instance, another question we discussed was whether boys can cry and the kids were like ‘have you seen our playground at lunch time?’ whereas once we got to the slide with pictures of men crying they paused. In fact, one boy was quite challenged by those images and my accompanying statement that “everyone cries sometimes” and told us emphatically that his father has never cried. I suggested that this was something worth asking his father about – when was the last time he had cried. This same boy gasped and covered his eyes with his hands when a slide later came up showing pictures of boys playing with dolls, wearing ‘princess’ clothes and learning ballet. It was an impressively horrified reaction. He was an interesting little boy, and brave to share his reactions so honestly given he was increasingly at odds with the class in his views. I would have loved to explore his responses more, we did a little bit of talking about them, but there is a limit to how much you can unpack something challenging with a child you don’t know very well and also to how much you can focus on one child while also keeping hold of the attention of a class. Sometimes you’ve just gotta plant the seed and leave it to grow or wilt elsewhere.

As progressive as they were (‘can girls have short hair’, ‘can girls run fast’, ‘can girls do skateboarding tricks’, and ‘can boys grow up to be daddies who stay home and look after their children’ all received enthusiastic endorsements from the class), there was still plenty of sexism in their thinking to keep the workshop rolling. For instance, “can girls be the boss or are boys the leaders?” got some disturbing responses. However, once I started testing their thinking with some real world examples they were quick to nominate examples of their own of female leaders. They caught on fast. Working with children that age is fabulous, they’re totally guileless. They don’t try to second guess your workshop or get jaded and cynical with you, they just leap right in with their honest thoughts – and so many of them are ripe for the unpacking. For example, showing the children an image of two medical professionals doing similar tasks, one male and one female, and asking them which was the nurse and which was the doctor produced a clear and probably unsurprising result. The woman is the nurse, they decided and the man was the doctor, when in fact in this particular example it was the other way around.

Some of the work I did with them about questioning sexism and stereotypes was from the perspective of looking at how ‘appropriate expressions of gender’ change across time and place and therefore aren’t absolutes. A great example for this was looking at ‘boy clothes’ and exploring the many skirt and dress-like clothing options worn by males in countries outside Australia – Scotland, Fiji, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Greece, many African countries etc. Another example I talked through with them was the history of ‘pink for baby girls’ and ‘blue for baby boys’ and how it was once the reverse.

Towards the end of the workshop we looked at some photos of androgynous and gender-queer children and adults and I talked about how you need to get to know someone for who they are rather than knowing people as a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’. Having unpacked so many gender stereotypes along the way the children were entirely unphased by this component. It was pretty delightful to watch – no rejection of the images, not even mild giggling – just some nodding and quiet attention.

This week I am running the workshop all over again for another class of children the same age and it will be interesting to see how they compare. Wish me luck.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

(Image credit for the illustration in this post).

Categories: education, gender & feminism, parenting

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15 replies

  1. I consider the universe lucky to have you in it.
    I wish the universe to return to you some of the luck that you have brought it.

  2. Totally awesome. I wish this sort of discussion was held with all young children in schools/kinders/daycare as it might avert a lot of gender stereotyping that happens every day.

  3. Sounds wonderful, bluemilk!! I too am glad that this world has you in it, doing the things you do! And as for the seed-planting-will-it-wilt-or-sprout, the good thing is that you seem to have coaxed the other local seeds into sprouting, so the sprouting-ness is probably much more likely now! And even if it wilts right now, as my dad has been so fond of reminding me when I get disheartened over bigotry in conversation or in class, the seed won’t go away, really – it could sprout at any time…
    I’m always intrigued by how responsive kids seem to be to these kinds of critical literacies education – and how rare they seem to be as part of formal (and even less formal) schooling. I remember talking to a friend of mine who was, at the time, studying Early Childhood Education (she’s now a teacher and director in a child care centre) about some developing pedagogical techniques for these kinds of critical literacies – mostly based around books, and about discussing how certain attributes attach to certain characters. I hope they spread, and soon, and engage, like your workshop did, with other forms of media that kids are likely to encounter, because this sounds like such an exciting way to approach these kinds of questions, and seems to me more likely to sustain it outside the classroom.

  4. I’m sorry… I wish to take the little peoples’ tears seriously but this:
    For instance, another question we discussed was whether boys can cry and the kids were like ‘have you seen our playground at lunch time?’
    really struck my funny bone and made my day.
    Good on you for putting this together. Would you consider putting your materials out in the world for other teachers to borrow? I understand that the amount of uncredited, unacknowledged work passed around among educators is sort of problematic, but it is so hard to re-invent the wheel and your presentation sounds very successful.
    Last comment: your note about “getting to know people as they are” rather than “as a boy or as a girl” reminded me of a moment toward the end of a recent novel I enjoyed, The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer. A high school teacher is calling out “People! People!” to get her students’ attention, and it sort of dawns on her that people is what they are. People! For her it’s a revelation that the worries and dramas of her students are just as relevant (if not as experienced) as her own, but there is nothing wrong with saying “People!” to refer to a classroom of little kids, either. Rather than “Boys and girls!” I mean.

  5. Reading this post makes me happy. 🙂

  6. Wonderful wonderful work. Good luck indeed, and what Matt said.

  7. I’ve got that Bruno Mars song stuck in my head “I think I want to marry you”. This is so cool Bluemilk. Not only to identify this as an issue but to come in and lead the class in a discussion about it is amazing. I hope that little boy’s dad had a discussion with him about it being okay for men to cry.
    But as WP said, there is a lot of seeds been planted there and even if that little boy never does have that conversation with his dad, that seed is there and maybe one day he might find a feminist who waters that seed for him and “bloom”.

  8. This is so wonderful, blue milk. Getting these ideas to them when they’re really young is so important.
    I met a four year old girl the other day and she sang this wonderful song about witches. No, not about how ugly they are and how they ride around on broomsticks; the song was about real witches and included such things as that they helped sick people, and even touched on their persecution (in a child-palatable way). It was amazing! Someone teaching children genuine women’s history! These things are so rare and precious.

  9. Wow great post. Particularly the last part about androgynous and gender-queer children!
    Imagine if this was as important to primary schools’ curriculums as, say religion studies or something like that.

  10. What an awesome post! This was a happy thing indeed to read this morning!! Good luck with the next workshop – I also hope that it is something that becomes part of the standard education (and communication skills!)

  11. About the “can boys like pink” bit – the 3 year old I look after doesn’t realise that the reason he likes blue and hates pink is because pink is for girls and blue is for boys yet. When I ask him why he would rather throw a tantrum than use the pink fork, he says “pink is not my favourite”. I’m sure in a few years he’ll know full well why pink is not his favourite – but I thought it was an interesting response.

  12. Thank you for all these lovely supportive comments – has been a thrill reading them.

  13. Tanglethis – am happy to share my workshop with any others wanting to do something similar and looking for ideas – they can email me.
    I must admit that I don’t have a teaching background so I took my workshop and ran it past several friends who had backgrounds in teaching at school/university/other for some feedback before I showed it to my daughter’s teacher. They had some good ideas about additional stereotypes to consider and also ideas for where and how to make it more participatory with the class. It probably isn’t as interactive as it should be but I had a short time-slot and given the age of the children I didn’t want to let their discussions run wild as I wasn’t sure we would head down that many useful paths so it was quite a prescriptive workshop. Their attention was probably pushed to the limit by the end of my session – the teachers kept a copy of the workshop and intend to run it again with the kids later in the year to reinforce the messages.
    Also, I took images from the Internet – no credit given – so I’d be reluctant to release my workshop on the Internet as that would seem a bit unfair of me. Instead, I am more than happy to give anyone interested the outline of my workshop including the basic points I made, the questions I used and ideas for the types of images to source for the various components.
    Thanks again for everyone’s enthusiasm.

  14. thanks for sharing. this is a fascinating topic, made more so my the fact that I am raising a fourteen month old multi-racial adopted daughter with my same-sex partner in the middle of Texas. I would love to develop some curriculum on this topic.

  15. I’m in awe of you Bluemilk, you really are doing something to move society forward.

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