This blog message was contributed by Steffie De Baerdemaeker (teacher and former school coach for çavaria, Belgium).
Since the 1960s, our society has undergone a big evolution. In education a lot has changed as well, except for the classroom interior of many preschool classes.
The 1960s want their corners back
On one side of the classroom there is the corner with dolls. There, we combine playing opportunities concerning “caring”: kitchen, washing machine, dolls and additional caring material and fancy dresses (to be able to really play mummy – male fancy dresses are usually missing). The pink hair drier and the cot with flowers and hearts emphasizes that this is the girls’ side of the classroom. The other side of the classroom is the bastion of the young men: the construction corner and the carpentry corner, with next to it the carpet with cars.
This division dates back to a time in which this separation was very logical: the wife stayed home and the father provided. (LGBT families did not exists yet, as Esmeralda (89) remembers.) Currently, we aim for a society in which everybody has more agency to interpret his or her role in life. Therefore, it is important that we provide our preschoolers with as many opportunities to develop themselves as possible, so that they can discover freely what they like to do and what they are good at, all of this regardless of their sex. To do so, we need something better than the “traditional” classroom interior.
“Hold it,” I can hear you think, “there is no problem in my classroom! My preschoolers flit happily around. Boy, girl, it does not matter.” Indeed: most of our toddlers do not care about what genital organ they have between their legs. Yet, in the meantime they do learn how a classroom is often arranged. They learn from all sorts of signals and from each other what is expected of boys and what is expected of girls. Your colleagues who teach the older preschoolers, however, do notice the effect it has: boys and girls play less and less together and more and more in corners we stereotypically link to their sex.
“But those children choose a corner themselves!” I can hear someone else putting forward. Imagine for a moment: Cécile was playing the construction corner the other day, when Bruno said once more: “Constructing is actually something for boys. Girls are not good at constructing.” It was a great blow to her. To the contrary, the same day Jef was welcomed in the corner with dolls. Well, even though he was welcomed by the children who were playing there, some others made a perceptive remark that Jef “acted like a girl.” When Jef heard what they said, he became furious. That day the opportunity to further develop Cécile’s technical capacities and Jef’s talent for caring was hindered. Other children also learned from it: as a boy you better stay away from those dolls, and for a girl the construction corner is a potentially dangerous territory.
Research from the Arizona State University, for instance, shows how important it is to give boys and girls the opportunity to play together. Separating children based on sex enforces the gender gap and has many negative effects on social interaction between the sexes later on. With a “traditional” classroom interior we partly contribute – often unconsciously – to that separation.
Another classroom interior, more opportunities
For once, look at your classroom differently. See the materials instead of the corners. Giving children maximum opportunities to explore and develop themselves, involves setting to work all children with as many of the materials as possible in the course of the school year. The trick is to put together your materials in such a way that every corner offers something for every child. That means that you put materials in every corner that stimulates play concerning construction, social life or fantasy. In that way there will no longer be corners for girls and corners for boys. In every corner there will something for everyone. Moving materials from one corner to another once in a while, will time after time create new, inspiring combinations.
Taking that step will also help you to get rid of the traditional names of the corners. The fact that dolls are rather for girls, and cars are for boys, will become clear to preschoolers outside of the classroom as well. The decision a child makes between the corner with cars and the corner with dolls is not a choice free of engagement. If only because the names have a male or female connotation. Therefore, name your corners in a neutral way, for example by using colors. Names like the red and the yellow corner do not carry a social restrictive pressure. Of course, it is all right to have a pink and blue corner, as long as both corners offer something for everyone.
The classroom interior considered here implies that teachers do some reshuffling, and that children get used to a new structure. Therefore, this is rather something you would do during school holidays. Maybe you think it is all a bit drastic or are you not (yet) convinced of the purpose. Did you already know that research has shown that the interior of your classroom has a large impact on the way children learn?
You can already start by making some small adjustments. Observe how the play of a part of the group of children changes. You can also play along with them. That is even better and more fun. The basic rule of these adjustments remains the same: combine “typical” toys for boys and girls within the same corner.
Some more inspiration to make the start a bit easier.
You can easily put together the washing machine and the stove with some plumbing materials: some pipes, tongs, a hammer… You can also easily combine construction materials with a stripped doll’s house: before you know the children – even those that do not really like constructing – will be building cupboards or a veranda. Dinosaurs as well can be ill. It is therefore not odd to put them somewhere close to a hospital, some medical materials and/or some pieces of fabric (to make beds, bandages, and scarfs from). Lastly, you can enrich the opportunities to play in all corners, by placing a cupboard in the centre of the classroom and fill it with five or more materials (tubes, cords, pots etc.) that can be used in every corner.
Are some of your corners or your entire classroom already arranged like this? Go on and inspire your colleagues by sharing your ideas and experiences in the comment section!
Steffie De Baerdemaeker
teacher & former responsible for education at çavaria
- Laura D. Hanish, PhD, Richard A. Fabes, PhD ; Peer socialization of gender in young boys and girls ; T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University, USA, August 2014
- Professor Peter Barrett, Dr Yufan Zhang, Dr Fay Davies, Dr Lucinda Barrett ; Clever Classrooms – Summary report of the HEAD project ; University of Salford – Manchester, 2015