It's a rough and tumble world out there, so we're all keen to arm our kids with whatever skills they'll need to thrive despite the challenges. That's why anxious parents comb through a flood of advice on everything from the right way to read to kids (apparently there is such a thing), to the right way to set boundaries, praise success, and encourage leadership.
But even the most dedicated parents probably haven't considered taking a step highlighted by a new Swedish study -- enrolling their kids in gender neutral preschool.
What's a gender neutral preschool?
The idea is completely new-fangled here in the States, but in Sweden, where the research was carried out, there's actually a network of existing preschools dedicated to the principle of treating all kids exactly the same.
Lila MacLellan recently profiled them for Quartz, painting a picture of a typical day inside one of these schools. Besides kids being encouraged to play with whatever toys catch their interest, young students can,
dabble in all kinds of activities, and are encouraged to explore their full range of emotions. Girls are not expected to suppress anger, and boys are not pressured to swallow their tears. All students are welcome to be as messy or tidy, rowdy, or passive as suits them....
Teachers are also trained to avoid talking about boys or girls, and instead speak of people, kids, humans and friends.
What impact does this conscious blurring of traditional gender lines have on the kids as they grow up? As this is a new initiative, it's too early to say for certain, but recent research suggests the experience of finding themselves while free of the subtle pressure of stereotypes might set these children up for later success.
"In a small study published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden report 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," writes MacLellan.
That's good news for these kids future classmates and coworkers, of course, but it also might be good for these kids' future more generally.
"Based on the beliefs they show when we interview them, they seem more open to certain experiences than children from more typical schools. Given that children develop through play and through interactions with peers, and that many play activities (like playing with blocks) that promote development are traditionally gendered, then it would be reasonable to assume that this is likely to improve these children's development and future success," the study's lead author told Quartz, though he stressed more research is needed.
And if you don't live in Sweden?
Of course, even if you find these initial findings intriguing, there probably isn't a gender neutral school available in your community. But just because you don't have access to a formal institution doesn't mean you can't put some of the principles behind these schools to work at home by avoiding gendered toys, allowing kids to explore their interests without comment, and encouraging them to express a full range of emotions.
If you'd like more information, MacLellan's complete article is a great place to start, and she also points readers to a recent TEDx talk by the administrator of Sweden's gender neutral preschools.
Would you be interested in sending your child to a school like this?