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Playing with Gender

The staff at an early childhood center asks hard questions about gender identity
Playing with Gender

There are 55 preschool-aged children at Hilltop, in four classroom groupings of various sizes, each with two, three, or four teachers (we have 12 teachers in our preschool classrooms). Each team comes together for collaborative curriculum planning for an hour and a half once a week. As the mentor teacher at Hilltop, I facilitate each team's meetings. Teachers bring detailed notes about children's play and conversations to the team meetings. We study teachers' observations and ask ourselves the following questions: What questions are the children expressing in their play? What understandings or experiences are they drawing on? What theories are they testing? How does this present an opportunity for us to strengthen the values we want to pass on to the children?

From our study and reflection, we plan one or two concrete next steps the teachers will take in the classroom and in communications with the children's families. These steps are intended to extend, deepen, or challenge children's thinking about identity, difference, and issues of culture. These next steps, in turn, launch us into another round of observation and study.

Early in the year, Sandra brought to her team meeting the notes she'd made as Nicholas, Jeremy, and Sam played about birthing and caring for babies. As we looked beneath the surface details of the game, teachers began to tease out elements of identity and culture.

"Sam clearly understands that men don't birth babies, but he wanted to be in that 'maternal' role and found a way to do that by being a sea horse," Megan said.

"I was curious about why they wanted to play this game at all," Sandra added. The teachers shared their hypotheses. One teacher pointed out that Sam's mom had recently had a baby: "Maybe this game is a way for Sam to stay connected to his mom." Another teacher called attention to the boys' knowledge of the tasks of caring for babies, and the mastery that they demonstrated with diapers and nursing; clearly, they'd been watching adults take care of babies. A third teacher commented on Sam's leadership role in the game: "That's new for Sam, to give direction to a game. I see this game as a way for him to try on this new role, now that there are younger kids in the group and some of the older kids have gone on to kindergarten."

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