Gender Free Learning

Kilt-clad child at local Renaissance Festival (LI4E stands corrected that wearing a kilt isn't "gender bending", although it did make a catchy caption)

In “No ‘him’ or ‘her’; Preschool Fights Gender Bias” the Associated Press reports today on the Egalia preschool in Sweden, where all 33 children will be addressed as “friend” rather than him or her or boy or girl.

From the color and placement of toys to the choice of books, every detail has been carefully planned to make sure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes. “Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing,” says Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher. “Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.”

“The taxpayer-funded preschool which opened last year in the liberal Sodermalm district of Stockholm for kids aged 1 to 6 is among the most radical examples of Sweden’s efforts to engineer equality between the sexes from childhood onward.”

Sweden’s been on the cutting edge of cultural androgyny for years, to the point where some detractors have accused the country of “gender madness.”  Which came first, the inquiry goes:  the bias in gender roles, or the bias in the value of individual interests? Who decided, for instance, that playing with cars was more intrinsically “male” , and therefore more valuable or powerful, than playing with dolls? Should the goal be gender neutrality, many ask, or gender equality?

Gender neutrality, while not new, always makes headlines. The recent effort by a Toronto family to keep their new baby’s gender a secret from family and friends, brought back into the news the story of Pop, a Swedish family’s child who was being raised in a gender neutral environment.

In the U.S. the trend recently has been towards single gender schools. Organizations like the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) for example, say they “recognize complexities of gender differences in how girls and boys learn,” they “do NOT believe that “all girls learn one way and all boys learn another way.” On the contrary, we cherish and celebrate the diversity among girls and among boys. We understand that some boys would rather read a book than play football. We understand that some girls would rather play football rather than play with Barbies. Educators who understand these differences can inspire every child to learn to the best of her or his ability.

Egalia has taken things a bit to the extreme even for Sweden, adopting the genderless word “Hen,” which doesn’t exist in Swedish (but which the Internet should be awash in references to soon), to refer to school visitors.

We don’t know if it’s a he or a she so we just say ‘Hen is coming around 2 p.m.’ Then the children can imagine both a man or a woman. This widens their view.”

Or complicates it.  More than likely, though, the friends just want to play LEGOs with any of the Hens that stop by.

For Further Reading on Gender Issues in Learning and Living: