Firefighters, Mail Carriers and Sanitation Workers: Using an Anti-bias Lens with Toddlers

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By Megan

The first week of school was many things. It was busy, joyful, loud, new, fun, cheerful and unexpectedly smokey. With fires burning close to Portland in the Eagle Creek Fire, air quality was unhealthy. In early September for the first 3 days of school we had to stay inside because of poor air quality. Many of our returning children were confused by this, as they had grown accustomed to going outside to play during certain parts of the day. I explained to them that there were fires burning in the forest, and that it was too smokey to play outside.

As we played outside for the first time that week. “Firemen put out fires” T (2 yo boy) said.

“Yeah, firemen water. Too smokey” said G (2 yo boy)

I responded “Yes, I think there are some men fighting fires out there”.

“Yes! Firemen fires” concluded T

I added “I think there are women firefighters putting out the fires too. When we talk about people who put out fires we could say “firefighters”.  The children paused and then went on with their play.

It’s moments like these with toddlers, where they reveal so much of what they already know about our world-as potentially a gender biased world depending on their experience.  Maybe they’ve read a book about firemen, or heard adults in their lives talk about construction workers only as “little guys”, etc. As a teacher I take these opportunities-to open their minds a little more. To pose a different way of understanding our world, from an anti-bias perspective. Think of how potentially powerful it might be for young child to absorb that gender stereotypes that they see in mainstream culture, can be challenged.

We had a similar random discussion yesterday while we were playing outside…

E (2 yo girl) put on a construction hard hat, pretending it was a firefighters helmet and said “I’m a fireman!”

I responded “You said you are a fireman, E. Did you know that there are women who are firefighters?” She paused walked away and said to herself “I’m firefighter” These small moments with children can have huge effects. Even if a child does not have a sense of their own gender identity yet, they are constantly absorbing information from the people, culture and language around them. Our goal here is to counter stereotypes, to speak about equal opportunities using an anti-bias lens.

The reason these types of conversations are powerful even to the youngest of children is because limiting gender roles hurts children in all areas of their development. L. Derman Sparks and J. Olsen write “While gender roles norms have become less narrow in some communities, there is still considerable pressure on children to shape and limit their learning behaviors according to gender. Paying attention to the diversity and equity in relation to gender identity creates a strong foundation for children to succeed in school and life and to fully become when they can be.”

Some questions to ponder…What were your earliest lessons about there beig different expectations for boys and for girls? Where did you learn these lessons (home, school, religious settings, friends, media?) How did you feel as a child about those lessons? – questions sourced from L. Derman Sparks & J. Olsen Edwards book on Anti-Bias Education


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