June is Pride Month — a month dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the identity of LGBTQIA2S+* people. In response to a post acknowledging this, we received an email asking why we put Pride Month on Tinkergarten’s June activity calendar, why gender had anything to do with early childhood and why we couldn’t stick to nature play.
I’m truly grateful this person took time to ask their questions — these days too many people simply dismiss each other without a word when the going gets uncomfortable. I’m also grateful for the chance to clarify why addressing gender, just like with other aspects of identity like race, age or learning differences, could not be more important to our work with families and kids.
Our vision at Tinkergarten is that “All parents are empowered as their child’s most important teacher; all families nurture our planet; and all kids learn how to thrive in our dynamic world.” If we are to reach this vision of all parents, families and kids, we must actively affirm and treasure each and every parent, family and child for who they are, and that includes taking special care to acknowledge groups whose voices and identities have not been equally acknowledged in our broader communities.
Community is also one of our core values, and genuine learning communities require that we see and accept one another’s differences and leave space for what can feel uncomfortable. I've had many conversation with loved, trusted and valued colleagues about this. It can be challenging, especially when the need to affirm one another conflicts with other beliefs we hold. I hold space for that challenge as well, but I nevertheless know that we must honor one another’s identity in order to learn and make an impact together.
Gender is essential to our work
I am also quite grateful for this chance to clarify why gender is such an essential part of our work with children. To begin, it can help to understand that gender (one’s identity) and sexuality (to whom one is sexually attracted) are completely different things that often come into play at very different times in life. Though we affirm and celebrate the diversity of family structures in our community, our work as early learning experts with kids focuses on gender primarily.
In order to support children in their learning, we don’t teach directly about gender, rather we actively create gender inclusive learning environments. From the words we use in our classes, to the way we design our lessons, to the experience a family has when they sign up on our site, to blog posts like this one, we strive to partner with families to provide kids with an environment in which they can thrive.
What is Gender?
Before I started learning more about gender in my work as a teacher and school principal, I had a really limited sense of how gender works and when it takes root. I too was confused about gender vs. sexuality and my lived experience as cisgender (i.e. my gender matched by sex at birth) didn’t prepare me to notice how our gender interacts with the world around us.
I’ve come to learn that one’s gender is the result of a complex relationship between three things: your body/the sex you were born with; your gender identity; and your social gender or gender expression.
- Even before they’re born, most babies are categorized male or female based on their biological sex (ah, those gender reveals!), and the world continues to socialize kids accordingly. This said, it is worth noting that even assigning biological sex is nuanced, determined by many factors.
- Gender identity comes from within a child and is their deeply held internal sense of self. A child’s gender identity can align with their sex at birth, can be the opposite (trans gender) or can align with neither male nor female (non binary).
- Social gender is how we express our gender and how those around us — individuals, community and society — respond and in turn, inform how we express our gender.
A person’s comfort in their gender is related to how harmonious these three dimensions feel in concert.
Why so Young?
Children recognize gender in others as early as 18 months, have a sense of their own gender at age 3 and recognize their gender identity around 5 or 6. Given how early children develop a sense of identity, gender can start to impact a child’s experience of the world and sense of self during early childhood.
Young kids whose gender is fluid or not conforming are faced with the choice of going against consistent and powerful social messages about gender in order to express who they are, or suppressing who they are inside. Either one adds considerably to their load, and the more we can do to create learning environments that are gender supportive, the more we can alleviate that stress. Making learning environments gender inclusive supports kids of all gender identities at being just who they are, too.
What is Gender Supportive?
My true education in this didn’t come until I was blessed with the chance to mother three children — two cisgender and one gender non-conforming. There is no training or work experience that compares with the education you receive from the children you love so dearly.
Even though we thought we had been remarkably intentional in picking yellow baby clothes and making sure our kids, each assigned female at birth, knew they could be many things in addition to princesses, my husband and I were deeply enmeshed in our binary world. When our son transitioned, we had to learn fast just to keep up. It was as if we had put on spy glasses and the binary nature of our world—and our own actions—came into sudden and overwhelming view.
Like never before, we also became aware of how deeply challenging the world is for kids whose identities don’t fit neatly into one of the two gender categories our culture affords them. How frustrating it is to not feel like you are seen and known for who you are or to be forced to align with labels or ways of being that don’t feel like you. And, thankfully, how liberating it is for kids to be seen and understood for who they are inside.
“The twenty-first century has brought with it a challenge to the male-female binary and a sea change in our understanding of gender, which in turn has opened up the doors for more children to announce at earlier ages that they are not the gender everyone thinks they are or that they certainly are not going to stay locked in rigid gender boxes. But the world still has a lot of catching up to do if these children are going to have healthy and happy lives.” —Dr. Diane Ehrensaft PhD
How can we create gender supportive spaces?
Though we continue to learn about gender and the impact of many different aspects of identity on learners, there are simple ways that we can adjust how we teach and how we engage with kids that are supportive of all genders. Here are five to start with:
1/ The Language We Use
We tend to look through language and not realize how much power language has. —Deborah Tannen
The words we use teach children what we value and how the world works. All too often, and without even realizing it, we reinforce a gender binary in the language we use with young children. I used to address groups of kids as “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen” — and wonder woefully now how many times that choice of words caused a ripple of worry or dissonance for a gender non-conforming child in my classroom.
To be gender supportive, we can be intentional about the language we use. Trade the “atta boy”s and “good girl”s for inclusive and gender-neutral terms or use words like “students,” “kids” or even “friends” when we address groups of kids.
We can also be sensitive to pronouns when we speak to and about other people. Asking which personal pronouns people prefer that we use is a signal that you honor a range of gender identities and are prepared to affirm whomever you are speaking with. Though kids may not have considered their pronouns, they learn to be gender inclusive by watching us. When they see us ask other grown ups or kids if they have personal pronouns they like to use and see us make an effort to use those preferred pronouns, we communicate the importance of being sensitive to gender, and we likely provide greater comfort to people of all gender identities.
At Tinkergarten, we call all children “explorers” — a term that not only avoids risk of harm but also reinforces why we’re all gathered — to explore, play and learn. We’ve also stopped asking families to share a child’s gender when they enroll. We don’t support kids any differently in our program based on their gender, so we simply stopped asking.
2/ Beware of Gender Assumptions
Often without even realizing it, we make assumptions about what will interest or matter to kids based on their gender. And it’s understandable, since many of us tend to see general differences between the genders. But, why do we so often give baby boys trucks and baby girls baby dolls and not vice versa? Are we really saying that girls cannot build or that boys are not nurturing? And, what if the boy we have is drawn to dolls or our girl desires to construct? How can we check gender assumptions enough to support them in developing their interests?
We can start by looking at kids’ home and play environments and making sure that kids, even those who present as typically “boy” or “girl,” have access to a range of themes in their books, toys, etc. Even just having a doll in the mix for a truck-loving boy presents the option and opens up possibilities. And, if kids do gravitate towards activities, objects, colors, etc. that are typically associated with a gender other than the one from their birth, we can allow, even welcome their exploration.
3/ Go Outdoors
The great outdoors also offers wonderfully un-gendered spaces with toys like sticks, dirt and water, allowing for open-ended, gender neutral play. This gives kids the chance to follow their interests, especially if we don’t blink an eye when our boys play fairies or our girls play warfare and allow our kids free rein to explore and invent as they play.
4/ Offer Mirrors and Windows
If we want all kids to be seen, heard and valued, and we want them to be allies to people whose identity differs from their own, we need to offer them both mirrors and windows. Mirrors are chances to see people who reflect their identity — and see themselves reflected back. Windows are chances to see people different from them — not as lesser or “others” but in full and positive view, strong in what makes them unique and what makes them similar to us, too.
Stories that feature a wide range of characters and are told in a range of authentic or “own voices” are wonderful ways to provide children with mirrors and windows—find a list of our favorite stories that feature a range of gender identities here.
5/ Stay Curious and Keep Learning
If you, too, would like to stay curious, check out a few of the resources below. Or, please comment to suggest some of your own!
- Gender Spectrum—Understanding Gender
- A Guide to Understanding Gender Terms and Pronouns—NPR
- Gender Diversity
- The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes by Diane Ehrensaft PhD and Norman Spack MD
- Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children by Diane Ehrensaft PhD
It can also feel opening to explore both new research about gender identity and the long history of gender across cultures and over time. Today, about a quarter of adults, when given the chance, would report their gender as falling somewhere along a spectrum between male and female rather than strictly within one category or another. And, people have lived outside of the male/female gender binary long before our current society formed. For example, in many Indigenous cultures across all of North America prominent people have been recognized and honored for embodying a combined masculine/feminine gender identity, known as a “Two-Spirit'' identity to some modern Indigenous LGBTQIA2S+ Native people.
This learning never ends! We’ll continue to strive to listen, learn, and grow in our ability to support all members and learners in this community, big and small.
* LGBTQIA2S+ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and the countless affirmative ways in which people choose to self-identify.