Child DevelopmentEducationGeneral

Building an understanding of gender equality early: hey dee ho’s story

The early years are a critical time when gender roles and stereotypical notions of what it means to be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ are shaped, and when positive influences on children’s and families’ understanding of gender norms can most easily be achieved. 

With increasing focus on gendered violence in Australia, early childhood educators are giving deep consideration to how they can have a positive impact in this space through encouraging children’s play, language, toys and storytelling through the lens of breaking down stereotypes.

Educational programs provider hey dee ho understands deeply both the complexity and the opportunity that exists in this space, and the responsibility that it has, along with its early childhood education and care (ECEC) partners, to promote positive gender norms in the early years, creating the necessary foundation for children to grow and develop their ideas and understanding about gender and to learn about equal and respectful relationships.

Longstanding hey dee ho franchisee Amanda Testro has used her awareness and understanding of these issues to develop, in partnership with Drummond Street Services and Playgroup Victoria, the ALL come out to Play! Embedding Gender Equality in the Early Years session, which aims to offer participants a deeper exploration of the importance of role modelling and gender equality in its programs.

“With 1 in 4 women having experienced intimate partner violence since the age of 15, 2 in 5 women with a disability, 3 in 5 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women and with an almost twice weekly increase in the number of women in Australia killed by their current or ex intimate partner, the need for change has never seemed more urgently needed,” she said.

“We want our girls to feel safe, strong and confident.  We want our girls to be whoever they want to be. We want our boys to feel it’s okay to be sad, to cry, to ask for a hug if they need it – we don’t want the tenderness shamed out of our boys.  We want equal opportunities for ALL our children and the early years are an excellent place to start.”

The session takes a close look at how gender equality is linked with the prevention of violence against women, and offers many practical tips and resources for those who attend.

Ms Testro has worked with hey dee ho alongside her franchisee role as a consultant on these important issues and has helped maintain the gender equality focus in all of hey dee ho’s training. For those who have already participated in ALL come out to Play! it’s been incredibly valuable.

She will be running the program again at hey dee ho’s training day in July, and will be sharing snapshots of the All Come Out to Play! show, which is designed to explore the same topics with young children and families.

“Solving an issue as complex as domestic and family violence is not, and cannot ever be, the domain of one part of society,” hey dee ho Director Jenny Wilkinson explained.

“That being said, with so much research pointing to the value of the first five years of life, in terms of shaping children’s values, beliefs and sense of self, it would be remiss of us not to do everything we can to address the alarming statistics around this issue.”

One of the key takeaways from the learning experience for Ms Wilkinson and her team was just how pervasive notions of gender are in the favourite stories and songs of teachers – everything from the cheeky monkeys jumping on the bed, waiting on Mum to ‘keep them in line’ through to the assumption in Miss Polly that Mummy would call the male doctor, and the male doctor would put things to rights is laden with expectations, and framing of what it means to be masculine or feminine.

“While we have always encouraged our presenters to encourage boys to take on the role of the ‘feminine’ in songs and play – such as being a mermaid or a fairy – and vice versa, to see the girls have an opportunity to take on more ‘masculine’ roles, this session really opened our eyes to how big this issue is.”

Ultimately the session helped the team to realise that when it comes to making lasting societal change, the key is to start early.

“Anything we can do to encourage respectful relationships is so important,” Ms Wilkinson said.

“Our words, our actions, our stories, our songs – all of these elements can have a lifelong impact on a child.”

To learn more about Playgroup Australia’s free All Come Out to Play program please see here.

This article was originally published by The Sector.