Our community is committed to shaping an environment that is inclusive. We know from the research that children can identify themselves and others as a boy or girl by the age of two. On a daily basis, our students are receiving implicit and explicit messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Colors, objects, and playtime activities get assigned a gender from a very young age. Playing with dolls and the color pink become “girl things” and playing with Legos and footballs become “boy things.” Creating these gender barriers boxes children into predetermined categories instead of allowing them to experience a wide range of emotions, interests, and experiences. In her book, From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools, Dr. Jennifer Bryan writes, “Marketers of fashion, toys, and gear populate and dominate consumer culture with grossly exaggerated images of femininity and masculinity” (Bryan, 2012).
In our classroom conversations we want to help children recognize, identify and reject these stereotypes. Our goal is to help children see that there are many ways to be a human, all of which are equally valuable and important. Traditionally, we have been offered an either/or view of gender. You are one thing or another. We know that the world is infinitely more complex and beautiful. Leading children to believe that they need to choose one thing over another limits them in oppressive ways.
In Kindergarten, we began our identity work around gender by reading Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman. This book tells the story of Jacob, a young preschool-age boy who likes to wear the “girl stuff” in the dress-up corner. He then goes home and expresses an interest in wearing a dress to school. The book explores his parents’ complicated feelings, as well as Jacob’s feelings of shame and experimentation. Ultimately, he is supported by his friends and his parents, and finds pride in the way he is choosing to express himself. As he claims in the end, “There are lots of ways to be a boy.”
Another book we read was Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores by James Howe. Throughout the book we discussed the stereotypes that were inhibiting Dolores and her friends. In this story, Horace, Morris, and Dolores love adventure. They love to play pirates and explorers. One day Horace and Morris are told that, “a boy mouse must do what a boy mouse must do” and are asked to go play at a club where only boys are allowed. Likewise, Dolores is told, “a girl mouse must do what a girl mouse must do.” Dolores finds herself sad and bored when being forced to join the “Cheese Puffs Girls Only” club where she is told she can only do things like have tea parties and play princesses. As we read, the children recognized the inherent stereotypes that were limiting Dolores.
After reading these stories, both Kindergarten classes got together to discuss them. During this time we introduced Jennifer Bryan’s gender continuum. This construct challenges the oppressive nature of a gender binary and offers a more inclusive framework, which embraces the inherent diversity of gender identity. We took time to discuss and build definitions for these terms: gender identity, “the way one thinks and feels inside about their gender”; gender expression, “the way one shows the world their gender;” and the bodies we are born in, “the body parts each of us has at birth.” We talked about how each of us falls somewhere on this continuum and that from day to day these aspects of our identity can be different and don’t always match up.
We then discussed where we thought Jacob from Jacob’s New Dress and Dolores from Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores would place themselves on each continuum. We debated and contributed our thoughts about the identity of each of these characters based upon the facts we could gather through the books. The classes agreed that both Jacob and Dolores would fall on different places on each continuum. We named the fact that for some people their gender identity may line up with their gender expression and the body in which they were born; but for some, it does not.
Individually, each class went on to place other characters from books on the gender continuum. As we reflected on the images, we noted how the exterior can reveal nuances of the individual. Our community is diverse and beautiful because of it.
We are teaching children how to confidently describe themselves, explaining to them that their descriptions of themselves can change as often as they like. As they grow they will learn new and different ways to describe themselves, each of which we hope will be more empowering than the last. We believe that every child in this community is unique and we want them to learn the vocabulary they need to celebrate that with their peers.
Take a look at our documentation wall to find out about the characters from the other books that we read, and see the diversity we celebrated by where we placed each character on the three continuums.
Courtney Sockbeson, M.S.Ed., Kindergarten Head Teacher