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Boys' things, girls' things

This booklet contains examples of how staff worked to challenge gender stereotypes both inside and outside the classroom as well as specific examples of practice from the project schools.

Child's drawing

Breaking the Mould

The NEU worked with five primary schools over two years to consider how ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes could be challenged in nursery and primary classrooms.

Teaching resource

Getting started: Keep asking why…?

Why gender stereotypes matter – and why we need to challenge them

Research outlined in the Breaking The Mould project report, Stereotypes Stop You Doing Stuff, indicates the extent to which gender stereotypes limit children’s and adults’ choices and behaviour. Challenging these stereotypes is likely to have widely beneficial effects in terms of improving educational and life outcomes for both sexes.

Most of these gender distinctions serve little logical purpose in contemporary society and seem to exist primarily as a means of exaggerating the differences and playing down the similarities between sexes. Teachers felt these rules, in part, to be market driven and partly about policing behaviour and relationships and, in particular, sexuality.

Many children seemed to accept them without question and teachers noted that they frequently influenced their choice of activities. Some children even refused to take part in things they usually enjoyed because of them (“Sam really wanted to ride a bike but said he couldn’t because the only one available was a ‘girl’s bike’ because it was pink”).

Older children in particular also often held very set views about everything from jobs and hobbies to areas of study and relationships with many aspects of these being judged as only appropriate to one sex or the other. Teachers recognised that these ideas – and the self-imposed restrictions they lead to – become harder to challenge the longer they go unquestioned. They agreed that what they initially wanted to unsettle was the perception that there are certain things – colours, toys, games, activities, comics, books etc – which are the sole or primary preserve of either girls or boys. Opportunities to challenge such assumptions arise throughout the school day, both inside and outside the classroom, and this first section looks at how teachers used gentle challenges to support children to question established beliefs about gender.

Schools also felt that questioning assumptions about what constituted ‘boys’ things and girls’ things’ was something that all staff and children would be able to relate to and that it could also be used as a starting point for beginning to gauge the impact of any work to address gender stereotypes.

They found this approach useful for a number of reasons – not least because:

  • it could be easily incorporated whenever the subject of gender came up.
  • it required minimal planning.
  • all staff felt comfortable to initiate the discussions.
  • The children themselves very quickly began questioning their own and others’ stereotypical assumptions.
  • It gave staff an easy way of assessing children’s attitudes to gender stereotypes as well as a useful measure of how views were developing and changing.
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