Non-Gendered Play in Early Childhood

Children learn the social meanings of gender from adults and culture. Beliefs about activities, interests, and behaviors associated with gender are called “gender norms,” and gender norms are not exactly the same in every community (Office of Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center). Adults can either challenge or reinforce the bias that might underline gendered play, by doing so they either give permission to or prohibit children to be themselves in how they approach play.

Play offers children a context to engage in social learning; in play, children can practice new skills and understandings before they start using them in other situations (Johnson, Christie, and Wardle, 2005). The social learning that takes place during play constitutes an important part of children’s experience of constructing and shaping their gender identities (Yelland, 1998). Through their play choices, children enact their understanding of gender as well as further develop their gender identities (Children’s Research Network).

Children learn cognitive, emotional, social, linguistic, and problem solving skills through pretend (dramatic) play. They also explore what life is like for other people, animals, or objects (what is it like to be a mother? a train? a lion?). For example, children of all genders with a pregnant parent often engage in pregnancy play (putting a doll or stuffed animal up their shirt). In doing so, they’re exploring what it is like to be pregnant. All children, regardless of gender, are interested in this question and develop empathy in exploring other roles. Pretend play does not cause a child to develop any particular adult gender or sexual identity, and is developmentally appropriate (Include NYC).

Young children look to caring adults to help them understand the expectations of their society and to develop a secure sense of self. Children are more likely to become resilient and successful when they are valued and feel that they belong (AAP Healthy Children, 2015; Kohlberg, 1966; Ramsey, 2004). Parents and caregivers can support a healthy development of gender identity through recognizing the importance of play being non-gendered. Cross-gender preferences and play are a normal part of gender development and exploration regardless of their future gender identity (Healthy Children).

Strategies for Challenging Gender Stereotypes During Play

  • If accessible, provide a variety of toys for your child to choose from, including baby dolls, toy vehicles, action figures, blocks, etc. Utilize books, puppets, and other toys to think through, act out, and challenge gender norms.
  • If you overhear children saying, “boy can’t play ______” or “girls are supposed to ______,” consider gently intervening by approaching calmly and inquisitively, so that children don’t think they are “in trouble”.
  • Consider intervening or making a plan to alter modes of gender segregated or gender competitive play. How might you be able to structure activities or space differently to encourage children to explore a multitude of games, interests, and modes of being (quiet vs. active)? (Include NYC) This includes encouraging non-stereotypical play, ensuring equal access to all materials and providing challenging physical activities for boys and girls.
  • Boys might need additional support in crossing gendered play boundaries as they adhere more strongly to their own-sex stereotypes. As a result, this could decrease their opportunities to engage with toys that have the potential to elicit higher levels of play complexity. Parents and caregivers who are aware of such nuances can be alert to have conversations with their children and encourage different play opportunities (Children’s Research Network).

Series Navigation

The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

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Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
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