Meet the teacher breaking down gender barriers in EYFS

When the girls in a class flock to the home corner while the boys head for the construction zone, it may be time to step in. But what practical actions can educators take to challenge stereotypical roles? Amy Byrne has some ideas
11th December 2020, 12:00am
How To Break Down Gender Barriers In Eyfs
Amy Byrne


Meet the teacher breaking down gender barriers in EYFS

Most teachers are now aware enough of the harm of gender stereotyping that they have largely banished it from the classroom, but how far is your EYFS provision still split between boys and girls when it comes to certain activities?

It's not uncommon to see girls flock to the home corner and boys to set up camp in the construction zone - and that's a big problem, says Amy Byrne, an early years teacher who has recently completed a master's in early years education.

She embarked on a project to try to break down those gender barriers. We caught up with her to find out how it went.

Tes: Does EYFS still have a problem with gender stereotyping?

Amy Byrne: Yes and no - it all depends on the individual children in your care and the thought that happens behind each of the areas of provision.

I don't believe that there is an aim, as such, to appeal to gender-specific interests but rather that some of the areas do lend themselves to what children may associate with being either male or female, based on what they see at home.

A good example is the home corner: research has shown that girls use this more, especially if it is in its bare form of a kitchen, table and chairs. It is amazing that children at such a young age can form their own views on gender roles and it is our role as practitioners to make sure that we challenge any stereotypes and work to include all children in all areas of the classroom.

What sort of repercussions does a failure to do that have?

Going back to the home corner, this is a place where children can take on the role of a caring, nurturing person, and these attributes should be taught and experienced by boys and girls.

Also, something that stays with me is a time when a boy wanted to wear a dress in the role play area. Research shows that a big part of dressing up is to experience different fabrics, textures and empathy, and is not necessarily associated with gender at such a young age.

However, boys do not tend to receive the same positive feedback when dressing up as girls do or, in some cases, may even be met with laughter. This must be so damaging for the boys. The classroom needs to be a safe space of expression and encouragement for all play opportunities by all children, regardless of their gender.

So, you embarked on a project to try to create a gender-neutral provision?

Yes, the aim was to analyse the early years classroom and its resources. It focused on enhancing different areas of the classroom by considering how I would encourage more boys or girls to independently play in that given area.

I observed how children would play in the classroom to see where boys and girls spent most of their time. If, for example, girls did not play in one part of the classroom, I considered ways to encourage them to join in.

I then observed the children after the changes were put in place to see whether both boys and girls used the areas of the classroom that I had enhanced.

What sort of enhancements did you make as a result of your observations?

As you might expect, the biggest issues were boys not playing in the home corner and girls not playing in the construction area.

To encourage more participation, we used a number of tactics, such as task setting, our own language and placement of certain toys. But the most successful were visual stimuli: for example, pictures of male chefs in the home corner and female builders in the construction area.

What were the challenges in carrying out this research?

For children to participate in a study like this, it is so important to gain parental consent and child assent to be part of the research.

Unfortunately, although I could observe the whole class to calculate the number of children in each area, I had a relatively small number of children I was permitted to interview. I had so many questions that I wanted to ask, in particular to girls who chose to play in the construction area who had not done so before, but I could not ask their opinions owing to not having consent to do so.

What did the interviews you were able to do and the observations tell you?

From interviews with teachers and reading about the subject, I found that children tend to have more of a preference about where to play based on gender roles from nursery age onwards. Prior to that, girls will often play in all areas and, although some boys may avoid the mark-making area, they play with many resources, including the home corner and dressing-up area.

I also discovered that when dressing up, younger children receive more positive reactions than older children, especially when it comes to boys wearing dresses and pretending to be princesses. So, the preschool to Reception class years really are a change in habits.

As for the changes I made: was it the enhancement I chose that encouraged children to play in that area or was it just because it looked different and possibly more inviting? It was not as clear as I would have liked so I have continued to test the theory using more areas of the classroom.

It does seem to have made a positive impact on gender inclusion and also provides great learning and communication, and language opportunities to talk about equal opportunities and to challenge gender stereotypes.

What do you think the key take-home is for early years teachers?

We just have to ask ourselves the question: am I challenging gender stereotypes in the classroom through provision, including the adults in the room? It is so important that practitioners consider the individual child and their interests, and work to challenge any gender stereotypes they may have already formed. When trying to encourage all children to take part in all areas of learning, we must consider the words we use, the visual stimuli and resources.

What do you want to look at next?

I am very keen to consider how feminist or egalitarian theories can support teaching and learning in education. I am passionate about inclusive education and equal opportunities for all, and would like to see how these theories can support pedagogy and practice.

Amy Byrne is an early years teacher who has completed a master's in early years education

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "How I…set up a gender-neutral provision for EYFS"

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