Eight ways to challenge stereotypes in Early Years settings

Here are eight things you can do to help create an environment which encourages children to think of themselves as individuals, rather than editing their choices through a gender filter.

Girl and boy in soft play tunnel, smiling
Early years’ practitioners need to ensure that all children get the opportunity to experience different types of play, toys and situations, to allow them to grow into different types of people with a range of skills for the future. Stereotyped ideas about what’s suitable for boys or girls can limit children’s opportunities to learn and develop.

Here are eight ideas of ways to help – share your own suggestions below in the comments.

1. Create a safe space

Pre-school or nursery should be a safe environment to learn and explore – you can help children by affirming unconventional choices, reassuring them that it’s OK to be different and encouraging a culture of acceptance. For example, a parent may question boys dressing up as princesses – your role is to support the children in their choices.

2. Challenge stereotypes when you hear them

‘Why can’t a boy wear pink? My dad does.’ ‘Why can’t a girl like football? My wife plays for our local women’s team.’ Children are often very keen to ‘police’ one another and make sure their peers follow the gender ‘rules’ they’ve learned. You can set the example by questioning them, and offering counter-examples from your own experience.

3. Provide a range of role models

Similarly, give children real-life examples that counter stereotypes, both in your own activities, and in topic work and external visitors. Ask for female fire fighters, male nurses or female police officers when there’s an outside visit. Join in with football if you’re a woman, do a bit of knitting as a man. Supherheroes aren’t just male fictional characters: they can be nurses or plumbers.

4. Make the most of books

Take a look at the stories and factual books in your classroom. Are there examples of working women, caring fathers, active girls and creative boys? Are all the animals in the stories male? The It’s Child’s Play report from the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project has suggestions of books with additional notes and ideas for discussion.

Labelling a bookshelf ‘Boys’ Books’ might seem like a good way to encourage reluctant boy readers, but this can be counterproductive, reminding boys of the stereotype that they are supposedly less interested in reading, and encouraging the idea that only certain interests are allowed.

5. Look at who uses which spaces and equipment

toddler girl in purple coat driving a red toy tractorDo certain areas get dominated by certain groups, or by one gender or the other? Are there changes or movements you could make to encourage children to feel equally free to use the home corner, the reading corner, the bikes, the Lego, outdoor space…

Is it about colour coding and signage? Maybe remove all pink, and all blue!

6. Pick other ways to divide up the children

Are girls’ and boys’ coat peg labels coloured pink or blue? Do boys and girls ever line up separately? Or sit girl / boy / girl / boy? Using gender to divide the children up can be quick and convenient, but it gives them the constant message that being a boy or a girl is the most important thing about them and reinforces stereotypes. Thinking of other ways to group children – perhaps by age, birthday, alphabetically – can be a subtle but effective way of encouraging them to think about their identity in different ways.

7. Use inclusive language

Small changes, like saying ‘children’ instead of ‘girls and boys’ or ‘parents and carers’ or ‘families’ rather than ‘Mums and Dads’ can help to affirm the things we have in common rather than our differences.

8. Think about rewards and sanctions

Are boys and girls rewarded differently, or given different sanctions for similar behaviour? Do rewards imply that you think boys and girls can’t like or do the same things?

How do you undermine and challenge stereotypes in your early years setting? Share your examples and ideas in the comments below.


These tips draw on the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project resources. A version of this article, written by Olivia Dickinson, was first published in Under 5s Magazine.


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