Beware the Nursery Gender Police: why church guidance on homophobic and transphobic bullying falls short

Children decide who can be a superhero. Shutterstock

The Church of England says that all children should be able to dress up in tutus or superhero suits without comment or criticism. But what stops boys from putting on heels and tiaras isn’t teacher unease, it’s other children.

Amid some incendiary press coverage, the Church of England has released Valuing All God’s Children, its updated guidance for schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying. The church is right to support children exploring different identities. But the guidance ignores evidence that children are the gender police in classrooms. Studies of nurseries and early years classrooms demonstrate that young children work hard to ensure that their peers conform to stereotypical, and binary, gender behaviour.

Supporting children to explore identities “sometimes quite literally with the dressing-up box” is a standard aspect of good early years practice. But teachers are up against it when it comes to gender.

Children under six associate “being a boy” or “being a girl” with wearing particular clothes and doing specific, different, things. They are also keen to demonstrate, to themselves and everyone around them, that they know what being a girl or boy means and which of these they are. Girls playing superheroes and boys wearing tutus aren’t usually trying out different gender identities. They are showing they are confident that their gender stays the same whatever they do.

Young children ‘correct’ how others play

For most four-year-olds, showing that you know you are a girl means things like wearing pink, playing with dolls and dressing up as a princess. Showing you know you are a boy means playing football, building things and being superheroes.

Children get these ideas partly from society around them and partly from each other – and those they get from each other are the most stereotypical. Within a nursery setting, each gender group will work hard to protect their “territory” – so, for example, boys keep girls away from the bikes and the Lego, and girls chase boys out the home corner. Reflecting wider society, boys draw particularly strong boundaries around what boys are “allowed” to do, and try to keep girls out of those activities.

Four-year-olds are also keen to fit in with other children of their own age or slightly older. Newcomers to any group are eager to learn what is acceptable for boys and girls in that group – and the older children are happy to teach them.

It’s often made clear to children newly arrived at nursery that some things are only for one gender. Barbara Martin’s book Children at Play contains some striking examples of this, from acceptable bucket and pen colours for boys (not pink) to who can be a superhero or play at skipping.

Children make the rules. Shutterstock

This isn’t always bullying, but it matters

This constant “correction” of other children and the insistence that they conform to very stereotypical gender norms isn’t always bullying. The tone used is often one of friendly and supportive advice for someone who hasn’t quite learned the ropes yet. But its constant presence in the nursery, coupled with stronger language – or even aggression used against those who regularly break the “rules” – makes it hard for children to try out even slightly unconventional play.

If conforming to nursery norms goes even as far as the colour of a bucket, is it surprising that boys who play with dolls or put on tiaras only do so when other children aren’t watching, and that most girls never try to play at superheroes?

Children learn through play, and getting involved with different kinds of activities is vital for the breadth of their experience. Being stopped by other children from exploring a full variety of play styles and equipment limits children’s experience and can affect their learning in the longer term.

Boys already come to nursery with fewer emotion words than girls – and not being able to explore caring roles through doll play is only going to make that gap wider. Girls who don’t experience playing with construction toys are likely to do less well in spatial tasks later, which may be one reason why so few end up as engineers.

We need our children to be enabled to grow into flexible, rounded adults who can be both adventurous and caring, physically active and empathetic, scientists and artists. Children’s freedom to explore experiences and identities across arbitrary and stereotypical gender divides is vital for society as well as for them as individuals.

Valuing All God’s Children is a good start. But if children are to be able to move beyond gender binaries, we need to go further than just focusing on bullying. We have to broaden the minds of the nursery gender police – and all involved.

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