Early Childhood Classrooms and Navigating Gendered Space: From Public to Private and Back Again
Walking into an early childhood classroom can be a comforting experience. Everything looks so...familiar. Not much seems to have changed over the past 60 years in these spaces. On display are the themes and tropes that repeat themselves from generation to generation. The tiny child’s kitchen in one corner, colored rugs with numbers and letters randomly stitched into the fabric, low bookcases with thin picture books jutting out, building blocks sets and the big open space in the center, typically created by pulling back tables where kids have been eating snack or lunch throughout the day. And colors. The bright oranges and blues and yellows which adorn chair backs and toys. When parents walk their child for the first time into early childhood programs, you can see a flush on their faces as memories and sentimental feelings overtake them.
When school finally gets started, however, early childhood classrooms are more like observing an Olympic event where we are going to witness who drops from exhaustion first. They are extreme physical spaces. Kids are bumping into each other, they are bumping into teachers, and teachers are barely avoiding collisions with not so completely stable or coordinated children. Accidently hurting oneself or others feels like part of the curriculum. I have seen more casts, limps, crutches, arm slings and foot boots on early childhood teachers than any other professional class. Firemen live in a safer world than these brave souls.
Young children are physically messy. They are supposed to be. They are both navigating space and learning space. And, much of how we structure these environments and help students relate to space speaks volumes for how we want them to perceive of themselves and others. Unfortunately, many of the current practices in these bright shiny rooms also lead to very early and clear messaging about gender and who gets to make the rules where.
Already by three years old, we see the trappings and social construction which dominate gender norms and values.
Not surprisingly, when you have kitchens or even play areas that represent the home, guess who ordinarily enters these spaces and begins to identify with its trappings? Girls. And, the bigger public spaces are often dominated by the physical play of boys, who will also create rules and norms about who gets to use this space and who does not and under what conditions. It is not just about rough housing or wrestling. Whatever toys or games are used or imaginary scenarios are enacted, the public space is considered the inherent right and ownership of males. Girls and boys who do not wish to be as physical but who still desire a piece of real estate are often pushed to the margins of these areas or told to leave entirely. Girls tend to be much more flexible about allowing boys to engage with them in the private spaces of the classroom, settling into role play very quickly. Already by three years old, we see the trappings and social construction which dominate gender norms and values.
The adults, all female teachers, were not supervising the space as much as establishing and reinforcing gender stereotypes as part of class.
In one study in an English early childhood classroom, Jennifer Lyttleton-Smith discovered that boys were willing to trade off control for more oversight and supervision in these big open spaces. Because the open is visible from all areas and the private spaces were more sectioned off, what the boys did in these open spaces was more easily monitored.* (See Source Below) What is most frightening about these findings is that the adults allowed much of the unfair, aggressive, and occasionally violent behaviors to continue in spite of this. The adults, all female teachers, were not supervising the space as much as establishing and reinforcing gender stereotypes as part of class.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because children become adults and what we do not address or think about when a child is 3 can have major ramifications in the adult world that become much more difficult to solve and reconsider. In the words of Elizabeth Kamarack Minnich:
That women and devalued men have been defined as “closer to nature” and as “backward” both historically and developmentally which has contributed to rationalizations for denying public life. This matters a great deal; privatizing serves domination by disabling people from making their cause apparent to others, denying them basic rights, and thereby keeping them vulnerable to the power of those who do have public lives and rights.** (See Source Below)
Children need to learn inclusiveness whether in public or private spaces of a classroom or a school. Here lies one of the fundamental experiments regarding teaching students about a just and democratic society, regardless of gender.
*Smith-Lyttleton, J. (2017) “Objects of Conflict: (re) configuring early childhood experiences of gender in the preschool classroom”. Gender and Education.
**Minnich Kamarck, Elizabeth. (2005) Transforming Knowledge. Philadelphia, PA. Temple University Press. (p.41)