Early Childhood Education

Play and Gender


Gender is an organizing schema for many social interactions and is constructed through multiple social contexts, including children’s planned and spontaneous play with one another. Play is a central force in the lives of most young children and serves to both reflect and promote their cognitive, communication, social- emotional and sensory-motor development. As part of children’s social-emotional growth, play provides the context for children to explore their notions of identity, including their gender formation. Gender is an important part of the “sense of self” they are creating in their interactions with the world (Cherland 1994). As they develop their identity, they perform behaviors associated with their sex and their gender and the managing of social activities to proclaim membership in a particular gender.

The following scenario depicts typical stereotypes of gender differences, in this instance in play, as girls engage in homemaking and fashion themes and other more sedentary small muscle activities while boys engage in more competitive, rough and tumble, and construction activities. Gender preferences for sex-stereotypic activities and toys begin to appear for children as young as 2 years old (Garvey 2000). Play provides one of the earliest domains both at home and in school where gendered narratives and activities are shaped and take on personal meanings for identity formation.

A 4-year-old girl, Ginny, plays in the housekeeping center. Ginny pretends to be the mommy. She assigns Audrey, another 4-year-old, the role of the baby, and to Peter the roles of a Daddy and a plumber. Peter only stays in this scenario for a very short time and then runs off to join a group of boys in the block area.

Young children become gendered persons as they negotiate with each other in a participation structure of differentiated roles, rights, obligations, intentions and actions within a classroom (Fernie, Davies, Kantor, and McMurray 1993). They enact these activities through their choice of clothes, materials and other props, the roles they assume, negotiate and attribute to others, and the peers they exclude or include within their play (Corsaro 1985). Their play becomes a safe haven to try on new roles, experiment with identity, negotiate what fits, vent feelings, and even choose their own endings. Pretend play, the most open- ended of all activities, allows children to try out possibilities without suffering the penalties that otherwise might accompany such actions.

Gender differences are universal, but their particular features appear to be shaped by culture and environment. The example of rough and tumble play illustrates this dual principle, as a type of play evident not only primarily with boys in the United States but also among the boys in Mistecans of Mexican and the Taira of Okinawa. However, the girls of the Pilaga Indians and the Kung of Botswana also engage in rough and tumble play (Garvey 2000).

There have been many theories attributed to better understanding gender differences and the role of early childhood educators in fostering children’s identity formation. Some theories propose a type of sponge model in which children learn about their gender through their experiences with their social institutions such as families, media, and educators. From this perspective, children become a product of their society’s values. This image of identity formation ignores the fact that children do not receive one message from these institutions about their identity but potentially many different messages from many different sources. Furthermore, it fails to explain why children accept or reject dominant understandings and how they make their choices between alternative and dominant understandings.

Contributions from a poststructuralist framework expand on these modernist theories by understanding identity formation as a complex interaction between a person’s gender, race, class and sexuality. Children are born into a social world with preexisting social structures and meanings. The relationships they have between individuals and social institutions are fluid, interdependent and, mutually constructing. Identity formation is a process in which the child actively constructs meaning through reading and interpreting experiences, but is not free to construct any meanings or any identities they want (McNaughton 2000). According to Walkerdine (1981) and Harre and Davies (2000) children develop their identities by forming their subjectivity (i.e., ways of knowing) about themselves in their world. Identities are not fixed but are rather formed first and then tailored over time through social interactions with cultural resources and activities. Children develop their sense of self by how they position themselves through their discourse in relationship to others. Through children’s use of language with their peers and adults they discover the power of being accepted, rejected and how to negotiate particular membership groups. These types of dialogues help children to distinguish themselves from others.

Parents, teachers, and peers all have roles in reinforcing or challenging children’s sex-typed play behaviors. Gender-fair practices and encouragement to try out different roles in play activities must be a conscious effort made by caregivers and early childhood professionals, given the considerable implications for social development and the formation of identity. Many in the field now believe that children need space to experiment with and challenge gender boundaries. From this perspective, the role of the educator becomes one of engaging children in conversations about different voices and perspectives on the world in order for them to learn there are multiple ways of being masculine and feminine. This interpretation of the role of children’s play in their early learning and development places it squarely in the category of “controversial topics” to be carefully explored with children, their families, and others in the field of early childhood education. See also Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education; Play as Storytelling.

Further Readings: Cherland, Meredith R. (1994). Untangling gender: Children, fiction and useful theory. The New Advocate 7(4), 253-264; Corsaro, W. (1985). Friendship and peer culture in the early years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Davies, Bronwyn, and Ron Harre (2000). Positioning: The discursive production of selves. In Bronwyn Davies, ed., A body of writing, 1990-1999. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, pp. 87-106; Fernie, David E., Bronwyn Davies, Rebecca Kantor, and Paula McMurray (1993). Becoming a person in the preschool: Creating integrated gender, school culture, and peer culture positionings. Qualitative Studies in Education 6(2), 95-110; Garvey, Catherine (1990). Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; MacNaughton, Glenda (2000). Rethinking gender in early childhood education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; Walkerdine, Valerie (1981). Sex, power and pedagogy. Screen 38, 14-24.

Lori Grine and Laurie Katz