Five public kindergartens in Sweden have toys that are never divided into traditional gender camps. Some have called it “gender madness”, but Lotta Rajalin, the head of five preschools in Stockholm, refer to a small study published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
The paper is stating that children who attended one gender-neutral preschool were more likely to play with unfamiliar children of the opposite gender, and less likely to be influenced by culturally enforced gender stereotypes, compared to children enrolled at other pre-schools.
At these five gender-neutral preschools you won’t find the usual designated gender camps. The teachers have been taught to avoid using the pronouns “him” and “her” when talking to children and instead speak of people, kids, humans and friends. “Hen,” a still rarely used gender-neutral pronoun that first came into use in the 1960s, borrowed from Finnish, but only made the official dictionary two years ago, has replaced han (he) and hon (she).
The concept began in 1998 when an amendment to Sweden’s Education Act stipulated that all schools must work against gender stereotyping. In 2011 Rajalin opened Egalia (equality in Latin), a school that specializes in gender equal teaching – an approach that does not assume that different genders have different characteristics, wants and needs.
Lotta Rajalin explains that at her schools, girls and boys can dabble in all kind of activities and are welcome to be as messy or tidy, rowdy, or passive as suits them. The efforts are probably paying off. Tests showed, for instance, that these kids were less likely to make choices in line with cultural norms when shown images of boys or girls and jeans or dresses.
However, it is not just the language that is different. Books and toys have been carefully selected to avoid traditional presentations of gender and parenting roles.
‘Together the results suggest that although gender-neutral pedagogy on its own may not reduce children’s tendency to use gender to categorize people, it reduces their tendency to gender-stereotype and gender-segregate, which could widen the opportunities available to them,” Ben Kenward, a researcher in psychology at Uppsala University and Oxford Brookes University, and lead author of the paper, explained in an Uppsala news release.
“We want to give the whole spectrum of life, not just half – that’s why we are doing this. We want the children to get to know all the things in life, not to just see half of it,” Rajalin told BBC World Service. “It’s all about democracy,” she adds. “We want to give all children the same opportunities the same rights.”
When Rajalin started out, she filmed teachers to see if how they treated boys and girls varied. “We discovered that there is a big difference,” says Frida Wikströ, the schools’ coordinator. “For example, we would take a lot more time to comfort girls. Boys were just told, ‘Off you go, you’re fine.’”
Plenty of research has explored the ways gender assumptions in the classroom are equally harmful to boys and girls. Still gender-neutral kindergartens are rare, even in the country rated as the fourth-most gender-equal society in the world. In the Uppsala study, the researchers interviewed 80 students, aged 3 to 6; 30 were enrolled at the gender-neutral school and 50 at two other typical preschools.
The verdict of child psychologists and experts in gender is divided – with most supportive of the aims, but questioning the means. Although some parents chose the schools specifically for their gender-neutral policies, accepting the approach can be challenging for others.
Keeping children open to all life has to offer is a key tenet of the preschools’ pedagogical philosophy. “We don’t take anything away, Rajalin says. “We only add.”
Gender-neutral Swedish Preschools Produce More Successful Children, written by Tor Kjolberg