A couple of years ago, a theater group performed a version of “Princess and the Pea” for my school’s Pre-K to second-grade students. The show focused a young woman whose only role was to be “pretty,” wear many “beautiful” dresses, and fawn over a young man.
Many of the other teachers and I were bothered by the performance’s glaring gender stereotypes, particularly the presentation of girls. This became more upsetting later that day as several students talked incessantly about the “beauty” of the actress and which dress they loved most.
This led the first-grade teachers to have a conversation with the students. We created a T-chart and asked students to say the first thing that comes to mind when they think of “girls” and “boys.” They received no other direction.
“Pretty” dominated ideas about girls, while boys were “active” sports players who approached challenges.
Then we asked students which of these words applied to them, reading words from both lists. Girls raised their hands and comfortably related to words like “soccer,” “powerful,” “hard challenges,” and “Karate.” Boys raised their hands for words like “feelings,” “ponies,” and “peaceful.”
It didn’t take long for students to realize, in a proverbial “ah ha” moment, that the list didn’t necessarily match their preferences or even their identities. This made us wonder:
Why were these words the first things that came to mind when we thought about girls and boys?
With an age-appropriate fixation on fairness, students were adamant that girls and boys should have equal opportunities.
We wondered, more broadly: “What makes us define ourselves in such specific and limited ways?”
To fuel this inquiry, we showed students two typical baby advertisements, each baby dressed to fit its stereotypical gender role (girls in pink and frills, boys in all blue.) These ads were not difficult to find. We guided a class discussion by asking questions like:
“Who do you think picked these babies’ clothing? Why would an adult assume a girl likes pink and a boy likes blue? What do these clothing choices say about parents’ hopes for these babies? What does this advertisement suggest to people looking at it in a magazine?”
“The parents don’t know what the babies want. The parents are making the rules for the kids.”
“The pink and the blue help to organize the store so we won’t get mixed up. But… I guess it is ok to get mixed up.”
“This isn’t fair for these babies. This ad could affect the choices that these babies make when they grow up.”
The first graders became fixated on the idea of choice. We took a deeper look at common characteristics of “girls” and “boys” clothes and created a challenge for the students: “If you could design your own clothing, what choices would you make and why?”
Some students sketched an outfit they wished they could find at a store, others designed clothes that could appeal to both girls and boys.
Our exploration also extended to toys and their advertisements. Students had collectively decided there’s no such thing as “girls and boys toys,” but when they looked at toy stores and toy advertisements, they were quick to notice a clearly-targeted gender.
“The advertisers think this ad is for boys, but we think it is for all kids.”
“This ad is in blue, but that one is in pink.”
We talked about how we might feel if we wanted to buy a certain toy that was advertised for the opposite gender.
One student said: Some of the advertisements might change what toy I felt comfortable asking for, even if I really wanted that toy.
Students then altered real advertisements in ways they hoped would appeal to both girls and boys.
“I only see boys in this advertisement. I’m adding a girl!”
As a culminating project, students built their own gender-neutral toy store in the block area. They tried to create toys and games that would appeal to any child. Some students designed and built the toy store, while others were responsible for shelving, pricing, advertisements, and even commercial making. Students’ families and the entire school attended the grand opening.
“Coolest thing I have ever seen!” said a visiting student.
“What I love about the toy store is that anyone can buy anything,” said another.
“I don’t see any pink or blue toys! Where can we buy toys like this?” asked a parent.
Fairness is a recurring idea for children. First-grade students are quick to acknowledge when they recognize or feel injustice.
Examining gender stereotypes not only pushed the typical boundaries of socialization, it was a platform for conversations about other forms of bias.
By bringing awareness to the overt messages of commercialism, we aimed to instill a sense of power, identity, and voice in the students.
Most importantly, they developed a willingness to question the status quo.
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