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Former deputy head questions if 'feminised' nurseries are doing enough to stimulate boys

Article By: Sue Learner, News Editor

A former deputy head teacher has questioned whether nurseries staffed mainly by women are giving boys the same opportunity to explore imaginative play as girls.

Many nurseries are very ‘feminised’ environments, decorated in pastel colours with displays made up of sparkly and glittery art, where superhero play and toy guns are banned.

Neil Farmer, who wrote the book ‘Getting it Right for Boys’ and is a former deputy head teacher and an early years expert, believes the colours of a nursery are key and says: “'Genderification' is an issue in many early years settings. The majority of early years settings are staffed mainly by females and consequently many settings reflect this - sparkly things, nets, pastels, etc. It is worth looking at the setting and seeing whether there are cool things for both boys and girls that are representative of needs and learning styles and interests.”

He urges nursery staff to look afresh at the nursery’s décor and look at what message it is giving the children. “Sometimes adults need to take themselves out of the comfort zone and learn from it,” he says.

David Wright, who runs Paint Pots Nurseries in Southampton, agrees that “the colour, texture, layout and space usage of an area defines its gender” and the type of play that goes on there.

He says: “Pink, lace, feathers, flowers, cushions, stars and fairies provides a different invitation to girls and boys versus a design incorporating camouflage.”

Research has found that between the ages of two and three, girls will opt for pink 80 per cent of the time and boys will start doing their best to avoid it.

However back in the 19th century, pink was very much a boy’s colour showing there is nothing intrinsic in pink which makes it particularly attractive to girls.

Consequently Mr Wright has deliberately chosen neutral colours for the décor of his nurseries as he says: “It is our collective attitudes to colours which create and maintain these gender biases. But given that these exist in our society, it can be helpful to temper the extremes by opting for perceived gender neutral colours.”

Toys and gender stereotyping

Toys are another issue when it comes to gender stereotyping and this Christmas, many parents will have been fighting the sea of pink toys and the ‘pinkification’ that seems to have become endemic in a girl’s childhood.

Nurseries are of course caught up in this debate, of whether to give girls dolls that are more akin to action figures rather than the stereotypical doll, which is more like a baby or Barbie who seems to have become more well-endowed and sexy over the years.

A company called Arklu determined to fight the ubiquitous sexy Barbie doll has come up with Lottie which has a childlike body shape, no make-up, jewellery or high-heels. The Lottie dolls are designed to inspire girls and come in a variety of guises including a pirate queen, a robot girl and a karate girl.

Lottie dolls

Mr Wright believes it is important for nurseries to give boys and girls the opportunity to play with “a range of dolls – male, female, action figures, different skin tones, etc as this provides opportunities for children of all races to role play in a variety of ways”.

“It is also arguable that stereotyping is imposed on children through culture and attitudes, modelled and directed by adults. In providing and supporting doll play to both genders without judgement and through skilful support and guidance, both boys and girls can be provided with enriching equal development opportunities,” he adds.

Mr Wright goes by the philosophy of ‘the more the toy does, the less the child does’ and says the best toys are stick, box, string, cardboard tube, dirt, sand, water and blocks.

“So in general, open-ended toys are best that support the development of language, imagination, creativity, understanding of the world in the widest sense and socialisation. These do not require huge expenditure.”

Offer children a wide range of toys

Sarah Steel, managing director of the Old Station Nursery chain, opts for “a mixture of resources, so children can choose those that they like, but often if girls have dolls at home, those are the ones they will migrate towards. I feel it’s not just about the dolls, but also about books, games and ICT resources – making sure that they see a wide range of female role models”.

In terms of gender neutral toys, she says: “I would certainly buy a wooden dolls house/fire station/garage which the children can use as they choose, rather than a pink plastic dolls house, which might not appeal to boys.”

Claire Overton-Arch, a nursery manager at Acorn Childcare, is of the opinion that “real looking dolls promote the natural caring side of the children whereas an action doll would promote an entirely different type of play, dressing the dolls and caring for them can often help when a new sibling comes along or generally role play associated with the home.

She says: “I think you do have to be careful in the dolls that you choose as some look completely unnatural. It is not just about girls having dolls to play with, the boys are often found playing with dolls and sometimes show more care and concern than the girls do. Within the different types of dolls available it is nice to reflect cultural differences in the nursery through the dolls so that children can associate with them.”

“I don’t see any issue with children of either sex playing with pink toys or wearing pink dressing up, I have come across male parents who have been quite offended because their son is dressed in a pink tutu even if it has been their own choice, and have questioned why we have allowed their son to wear such an outfit.

“Some parents come around when you explain it is the child’s choice but it is probably more to do with adults’ idea of colour and gender and what is right for boys or girls than it is the children’s, and you have the whole stereotypical / uneducated view of if they start early they will be homosexual.”

Nurseries have an important role to play

Play is crucial to a child’s development and because of this, Penny Tassoni, who has written many books on child development and is president of PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) says: “The starting point for all early years settings is to ensure that all children have opportunities for a ‘balanced diet’ of play. Unfortunately, children's natural desire to explore gender concept can mean that they start to cut out certain activities and toys if the outward signs such as colour or the attitudes of staff and parents make them think that it is not for them.”

She adds: “Whilst it is probably impossible to prevent children from exploring gender concept, it is important for settings to monitor how play opportunities are being used and by whom and then to consider whether or not children are getting a good balance of learning through the play on offer.Gender concept is complex and children's experiences at home also play a part.”

Nurseries need to be aware they have a very important role to play with gender stereotypes as Ms Tassoni says: “Interestingly, many children will in the company of an adult they like, suspend their gender prejudices if an activity is of interest to them. A good example of this is cooking where most boys and girls alike are happy to join in regardless that in some households this is still seen as a 'female' activity.”

To take part in our debate on whether nurseries should ban toy guns and swords please go to


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