Do toys, clothes, and jobs have genders? Reflections of a kindergarten teacher

Identity for a start

When a three-year-old child comes to kindergarten, they present a certain set of features and behaviours that are meant to define their identity. A child’s biological sex determines the choice of name, often the colour and type of clothes they will wear and the toys that will appear in their room. It is hard for us to imagine pink baby wraps for a boy or wallpaper with green tractors in a room prepared for a girl. By the time a child goes to kindergarten, they are already quite saturated with the culture, customs, norms that are meant to define their gender and what is related to this gender. Over the course of my several years of professional experience, I notice certain patterns, stereotypes and beliefs about gender roles, which we ascribe (as a society) to women and which we ascribe to men, and thus to boys and girls. Although it is not a rule, in kindergarten girls usually have beautifully combed hair with braids, hairpins, pink blouses and tulle skirts. With boys, the colour blue with superhero emblems is dominant and many have already had it instilled that boys do not cry.

“Boyish” t-shirt and pink socks

Of course, when living in a specific culture, it is difficult to raise a child completely detached from cultural and moral norms, but as a teacher I try to be particularly vigilant in situations in which stereotypes and beliefs have a harmful effect on the child’s situation. When, for example, a girl spills tea on herself and my task is to take care of her, I first check if she has some spare clothes in her bag in the cloakroom. If the bag is empty, we always have something special for this type of situation. The problem, however, begins when I find the one and only t-shirt in the special drawer, and it is also boyish. I don’t really have the space, time or energy for “I’m not wearing this” discussions. I want to take care of the girl, dress her up and end the subject there. However, she already knows, even though she is only four years old, that clothes in our culture have a gender. She already knows that it is not appropriate for a girl to wear a spiderman t-shirt and that someone may misjudge her through the lens of her clothes. I have encountered such dilemmas more than once. A boy who does not want to wear pink socks knows that pink is “girly” and no argument will make him change his wet socks for dry but pink ones.

Its “girly” or “boyish”

Generally, most children know that someone with short hair is a boy or that any boy who cries is like a girl. These are just a few of my “favourite” stereotypes that many kids are stuffed with from birth. Of course, our brain needs to match and classify, it does so regardless of our will. It adjusts everything according to patterns that arose as a result of experiences. If a child has never seen, for example, a girl playing football, if a parent thinks it is a game for boys, and if only men scoring goals are seen on billboards or on TV, it is highly likely that a woman practising this sport will make a splash. It is also possible that she will hear that she is “weird” or “not very feminine” – if she decided to take up such a sport at all. I wonder how many girls have abandoned their passions or never started to pursue them due to social beliefs and gender stereotypes.

Adult awareness

Pre-school age is the stage at which children gain their first experiences in various fields. Based on the opinions of adults, they build their idea of the world and their place in this world. They judge it through the lens of the values and beliefs of significant people. Some of these children will be able to face and even notice the influence of culture, social norms and stereotypes on their lives only in adulthood. Kindergarten is a good place (away from home) to show diversity so that it strengthens the child’s self-esteem while teaching them that the other person has a right to be who they are. I like the “wow” effect when after hearing some mockery like “He looks like a girl” (because the boy had a slightly longer t-shirt which evoked associations with a dress) or “She looks like a boy” (because the girl came in short-cut hair) I pull out my phone or newspapers and I look at photos of people who represent the complete opposite of stereotypes with the kids. The variety that they can see in the pictures, adapted to age and level of development, causes quite a lot of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly it turns out that clothes, colours, hairstyles, toys, passions, professions performed by adults do not have gender. That it is possible for women to play football and that men can wear pink too, and that doesn’t make them women. Suddenly it turns out that it used to be unthinkable for women to wear trousers or go to work.

“You’re beautiful”

I imagine an ideal kindergarten with people full of knowledge, sensitivity and alertness. A place where there is no room for separation based on what is boyish and what is girly. In an ideal kindergarten, I imagine a teacher greeting a three-year-old dressed in tulle running up to them by saying, “Nice to see you” and that they will be able to see something more than appearance. “Wow, you run fast!” Regarding my own professional work, I have a sad observation that unfortunately the first thing I see in a little girl is her appearance and I always want to say: “Wow, you look beautiful.” I hear these arguments that there is nothing wrong with paying compliments, but at the same time, what if this girl only hears messages about her appearance, as if she had no other qualities? Unfortunately, we unconsciously feed this girl with information suggesting “You want to be noticed, you must be beautiful.” Maybe this is a strong assertion and probably many people will find a lot of evidence that girls are not only a pretty face. And that’s good. Because it is a sign that something is moving forward in our perception of the world and people.

Everyone hears and draws conclusions

I always try to keep in the back of my head that what I say to a child is heard not only by that child, but also by the whole group. Ideally, you should get rid of all judgement and comparison. I think that “Oh, how nice to see you” instead of “Oh, you look like a princess” heard from a beloved teacher has an equally significant power. I don’t want other preschoolers to feel bad or inferior because of my admiration for a certain feature of a given child. It can also lead to the belief that this feature which I am focusing on is of key importance. Being aware of this, a space opens up for broadly understood equal education. What, how and when to speak to support self-esteem?

Everyone has the right to be whoever they want to be

Despite the fact that I grew up in a culture of sexism, and by assumption I have it imprinted on my brain that, for girls, appearance matters and that girls do not do many things (get dirty while playing, climb trees, practice karate), at the same time I imagine that in an ideal kindergarten there is a place to develop the potential of each child, without stigmatising. In fact, recently I see an increasing awareness and knowledge of educators, teachers and parents. It takes a lot of openness and knowledge to start noticing features other than those that have been marked as gender-specific through socialisation. The awareness of adults who care for children is crucial in shaping their attitudes and thoughts. Taking into account the resources of social sciences and research, it is even more worth looking for solutions to implementing content in the field of equality education. The age-old argument of education versus genes, in an ideal kindergarten, should be reduced to discussions, games, activities in which both girls and boys learn that everyone has the right to be who they are and that they can do what they are interested in. With such a consciously guided educational process, there will be less and less space for unconscious influence.


I will never forget my shock when I saw a video of an experiment. Adults were given a moment to take care of a baby. The behaviour of adults towards an infant wearing a blue romper was completely different from that towards an infant dressed in pink. The adults did not know the child’s gender. Instinctively, they classified them based on the colour of their clothes. The “blue baby” was tossed up and down in an act of fun, rocked more violently, the voice of the adults was stronger. On the other hand, adults were gentler towards the “pink child”. It shocked me how many messages we – unconsciously – send to children depending on the gender we assign to them. In girls, we notice delicacy, sensitivity and beauty. In boys, strength, aggressiveness and energy. Even if the child is the same, but only in a different colour of clothing, suddenly our behaviour towards the child changes. As I mentioned before, and this is nothing new, our brain unconsciously classifies stimuli from the environment and triggers specific behaviours. Here, however, I see a trap. The stereotyped style of upbringing, which can be observed in our culture for generations, may have a negative impact on shaping self-esteem, life decisions and choices. I think it is a great art and a process to move from the unconscious stage to the consciousness stage in education. At the same time, it is probably the only way to break down beliefs and stereotypes about gender that have been built over hundreds of years and give girls similar support in building their self-esteem.

What I say matters!

In the context of empowering girls, I like to analyse the language we use. In Polish, the messages “You came”, “You did” addressed towards the whole group (of mixed-gender pupils), are formulated in the masculine, even though half of the group are usually girls. I do not know how many teachers think about this and are aware that at the level of this simple, but everyday communication, girls are discriminated against. It is also hard for me to imagine a mixed group or a group in which the vast majority are girls, to which I start to say “You came” in the feminine gender to everyone. I suppose boys would find it weird to hear that. Ha! Even the girls would find it strange to hear this. This is how socialisation works unconsciously. Girls have been functioning in groups for years, hearing “You came, you saw, you did” etc. in the masculine. It is the norm to such an extent that more than once, when raising the discussion about avoiding the female gender in messages addressed towards a group, I came across sarcasm and comments: “Because that’s the correct form,” end of discussion. However, no one can explain to me why male forms are more correct than female ones. Having read the research report (Gender in textbooks. Research project. Volume 1), I try to mark the gender of both girls and boys equally. Changing your language habits is tedious but possible. I know that when formulating a statement like “Oh, I see that all of you, boys and girls, have done an interesting task today,” kids subconsciously absorb the message that everyone has an equal right to be noticed, that the role and position of girls is just as important as boys. And being noticed, i.e. the attention of others, is one of the foundations of building self-esteem. If the female gender is absent from speech, grammar, names of prestigious professions, textbooks, it is difficult to talk about equal education and the fact that girls have equal opportunities to shape and develop their potential.

If the unconscious use of language leads to a reduction in the position of girls in the group, class, and society, then I wonder at what other levels discrimination occurs. While preparing this article, during a conversation with a teacher with thirty years of work experience, I heard that once during free games a group was divided as follows: “Girls play at the table, boys play on the carpet, then switch.” I hope that such a division does not function anywhere any more. I have never experienced anything like that. Children are supposed to use the room and its resources in a similar way. On the other hand, a lot of times when I plan to buy teaching aids or toys for the room, I catch myself thinking: “Oh, it’s gonna be fun for boys, and it’s gonna be cool for girls.” Fortunately, this is just a matter of thought. I have never noticed in kindergarten that girls or boys prefer any kind of play more than the opposite sex. Both boys and girls use cars, dolls, toy trains, drawing materials and stuffed animals to a similar extent. Only we, as adults, can spoil this fun. However, I wonder if, after all, my attitudes and reactions are not harmful to either of the sexes.

Reflection above all else or the first step to a great change

During a training session, I heard that in the kindergarten group it is most difficult for quiet, calm children, although I wanted to write about girls as if calm boys did not exist. Quiet, or the so-called “good” kids, unfortunately, are the least likely to get the attention of an adult. The teacher has to “put out the fire” where there is screaming, kids going crazy, aggressive behaviour. Having this knowledge and reflection, it is worth making an examination of conscience and reflecting on what it looks like with us. Do I pay attention to all children equally, is my language not marked by gender stereotypes and beliefs, do I equally give access to toys and activities, or do I limit any gender because of my beliefs? Do I break stereotypes with my attitude, or do I strengthen and reproduce them?

I do not accuse anyone of ill will and I guess most teachers would admit that both girls and boys have equal access to room resources and equal support in realising their potentials, etc. However, research shows that girls are systematically discriminated against, they experience hate speech more often or even violence, as women they earn less in the same positions, and they are a minority in public and political space, even though they constitute half of humanity. There are many more such examples. Personally, these statistics scare me, and at the same time I know that it is impossible to heal the world alone. An army of specialists of both sexes is needed. Wise and sensitive male and female teachers. And it comforts me that issues of equality are becoming a topic of discussion more and more often. It seems to me that this is the first step towards a big change. Another is to be aware of your lack of awareness, to gain knowledge, to undergo training and to share knowledge. It’s just a recipe for repairing the world on the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child.

  • Home page
  • News
  • Do toys, clothes, and jobs have genders? Reflections of a kindergarten teacher

Related articles

“Better” and “worse” gender

What messages permeate our culture? How do they affect the perception of roles and tasks of men and women? Who is their transmission channel?

Read more

Beyond stereotypes

Sometimes a glance at a person passing by on the street is enough to already think we know everything about them, or at least a lot... Who they are, what they should be doing, and what they’re doing wrong. Where does this come from? What is it about us that makes it so easy to typecast people?

Read more

Girls and computers. Programming as an important competence of the 21st century

Professions requiring digital competences are still stereotypically perceived as typically male. Additional computer classes are less often of interest to girls than to boys. Girls are also less likely than boys to think about a professional career in this area. Why is that so?

Read more