Putting early childhood education to gender equality’s use
Research shows that the concept of gender in children forms between the ages of three and seven. During this early phase, children form an understanding of gender norms, identities and stereotypes. By this age they also acquire strong gender biases, such as which jobs men and women should fulfill.
Also, by this time girls have often already been negatively affected by gendered interactions and boys’ masculine conduct in schools. Altogether, this has a huge impact on children’s future lives.
Rigid understandings of gender norms and identities and stereotypes seriously limit young children’s freedom to develop to their full potential according to their unique and valuable talents and interests, irrespective of their sex.
Seeing the growing importance of early childhood education in many countries, VVOB and FAWE see great potential in harvesting the impact of early childhood education on children for the benefit of gender equality; not just by ensuring that girls enroll in preschool education to jumpstart their education, but also by focusing on how preschools and early learning centers can challenge limiting gender stereotypes, norms and identities that will have a lasting effect on children’s lives.
How learning environments perpetuate norms and stereotypes
Similar to other regions in the world, enrollment in early childhood education in Africa is on the rise. This aggravates some persisting challenges, such as the large number of unqualified preschool teachers or teachers that have not been trained to teach at the preschool level; curricula and pedagogies that are not adaptable to the various developmental stages of children; and a lack of play-based pedagogies. In addition, a large majority of teaching staff is female.
Similar to what research has found to be true in countries in the global North, teachers are known to be unconscious validators of harmful gender norms and stereotypes. Girls, for example, are more often praised by teachers for their clothing, appearance and caring behaviors. Boys, on the contrary, are complimented for their physical strength, given more complex tasks in class, given more attention and experience more space to express themselves than girls.
Research from Kenya reveals that preschool teachers influence children to select and use gender-appropriate play materials, rather than stimulating cross-gender or gender neutral play-materials.
Gender norms and stereotypes are not limited to the classroom. They invade young children’s lives in many ways: through media, advertisements, toys and learning materials. They are passed on to them by their parents, their peers or from what they see in their communities and through social norms.