Children ages three to six are developmentally working on power and identity. This is one reason parents tend to become bewildered by power struggles at this age—children are learning who they are in relation to others, and consequences of their behavior.
Another thing children learn at these ages is the beginning of gender identity. Children will often begin to identify with the same gender parent, sibling, or other trusted adult, and with exaggerated versions of the gender—such as Barbie or Batman. Other times, they may try out behaviors or dress that we adults associate with another gender.
It’s important to allow children to explore their gender identity in ways that work for them. Shaming a child because they are exploring a gender expression different from the norm is not healthy. Often times, parents and teachers will smile and encourage girls to dress up or engage in play around what have been in the past traditionally male professions, such as firefighters or doctors or airline pilots. However, these same parents and educators often become nervous when the roles are reversed, and young boys put on high heels or play with dolls or want to wear a sparkly outfit.
Allowing our young children to explore without judgment helps them be creative, explore the different roles in our society, and helps begin conversations about stereotypes and gender.
Ways you can encourage healthy play:
- Provide an environment rich with gender-neutral toys, like blocks, books, paint, drawing utensils, sand or rice, and large motor activities, such as bicycles, balls, and climbing toys.
- When you do provide dress up materials, make sure different types of materials are represented, such as soft fabrics, boots, and different types of hats, old shirts and dresses.
- Allow your child to explore and pretend. Describe what he or she is doing, rather than judging or directing the play. For example, “You are wearing the pink scarf today, and the firefighter hat.”
- Talk about pretend and real.
- Read books about children who challenge traditional gender roles, like “The Paper Bag Princess,” and “My Princess Boy.”
Most of all, enjoy. Play is one way children learn to make sense of the world—it is their work, and it is important. Providing a rich environment without direction or judgment can empower young children to explore who they are.