“Boys don’t play with girls!”

Preschool children’s role in reinforcing gender stereotypes in early childhood education.

Cathy Kilburn recently completed a PhD in preschool children’s experience of gender stereotype reinforcement and policing within early childhood education settings. She is a lecturer of early childhood education at the University of Hull. For more information about Cathy’s research, she can be contacted via LinkedIn or her blog at: https://earlychildhoodacademic.owlstown.net/

As a nursery practitioner, the phrase “We know that preschool children reinforce gender stereotypes”, or a similar phrase, was one that I came across in so many articles about preschool children and gender. However, it was never supported by a citation to signpost me to where I could find out more information. Between this, and my observations of preschool children experiencing gender reinforcement in the setting where I worked, I developed an interest in preschool children’s experiences of gender reinforcement and gender policing which led to the start of my PhD.

The research

My research used a range of methods which enabled the participants to share their lived experiences of gender reinforcement and gender policing. The participants were 3-4 year old children in three preschool settings in diverse areas of the UK, and the methods used enabled them to reflect on the role that gender played in their interactions and play with other children within the preschool environment.

Preschool children and gender

Preschool children have long been believed to develop an awareness of gender from their family and outside community, however, my research identified that the children themselves are active participants in the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and norms with some children taking on the role of gender reinforcer within their setting.

The findings of this research project identified a range of ways that gender influenced the children’s experiences within the early childhood settings, these ranged from the impact of family and community on children’s beliefs about gender to the children’s awareness of the potential implications for breaking the setting gender norms.

Gender enforcers

Participants in all three of the settings shared that they could play with any child who had the same gender as them with no social issues, however, if they played with an opposite-gender peer they could be excluded by the gender enforcer or other children within the preschool. This was an obvious concern to the participating children as the majority of them mentioned this possibility at least once during the data collection activities and conversations.

The children who were identified as gender reinforcers tended to be confident in their beliefs around gender and to be seen by the other children as an “expert” or as someone who held social power within the setting. Research has shown that gender reinforces are more likely to be an older male within the setting (Xiao et al., 2019). However, this was challenged by the findings of my research where the main gender reinforcer within one of the participating settings was female, and in another setting, the gender enforcer was one of the younger children. These children were often referenced by the other participants when they were explaining who they could play with, and what they thought would happen if they played with an opposite gender child.

Gender communication

The research identified that children used the gender binary not only as a way of identifying who they should play with but also what children should be allowed to play with. This moved beyond, for instance, whether girls should be allowed to play in the construction area, to what toys and resources were appropriate. In one interaction a female participant was observed removing all of the letter shapes away from a male participant who was playing with them.

Video observation of children playing in Nursery (used from Cathy’s research with permission)

During a follow-up reflective conversation with the female participant, she was clear that it was inappropriate for a boy to play with letters because “he’s a boy, and boys don’t do letters”.

The participants used a range of verbal and non-verbal methods to reinforce gender stereotypes and norms, at times reinforcing positive beliefs about same-gender peers, or negative beliefs about opposite-gender peers, but also demonstrating whether the peer was being included or excluded from the play. The use of non-verbal methods went beyond facial expression and included body positioning, for instance turning their backs to a child who was not welcome in an area or walking past an opposite-gender peer who wanted to join in to try to engage a same-gender peer.

Analysing the observations it was identified that these methods were being used in different ways depending on the context. For instance, where the children were aware that a practitioner may be nearby, for instance inside the preschool environment, the children were likely to use a more subtle form of gender reinforcement or policing. However, when the children were at a greater distance from the practitioners, for example in the outside environment, the children were more direct about their gender policing or reinforcement behaviours.

However, whilst most of the methods identified could be used subtly or in a more direct manner, one unexpected method was identified which the participants used to control an opposite gender peer’s involvement in their play which was very subtle. Through close observation and analysis of some of the children’s role play, it was identified that children were adapting their play as a means of excluding an opposite-gender peer or limiting their ability to participate. This was being done in such a way that it initially appeared that the opposite gender peer was being accepted and included, then the storyline would change, and the opposite gender peer would find themselves outside of the play. In one instance this was achieved by sending “dad to work” and in another by explaining that “male kittens can only play in this area”. In both of these instances, the male peer appeared to be confused as to the change in the play, before accepting they were no longer included.  


Whilst this research project led to the identification of a range of recommendations for policy, research, and practice, I believe the most important outcome is the identification of the role that preschool children play in the construction and reinforcement of gender stereotypes and norms. If we, as early childhood practitioners, wish to challenge the impact that gender has on the lived experiences of the children in our care and to truly provide them with a gender-equitable experience within their early childhood settings, we cannot ignore the role that the children themselves are playing. We need to be aware that young children have a strong understanding of gender, and we need to ask the questions, to gently challenge their use of gender stereotypes and norms as a means of controlling the environment and each other. If we just assume that preschool children are too young to know about gender stereotypes and norms, we miss opportunities to challenge inequality and to start a conversation about these important issues with our youngest children.


Xiao, S. X., Cook, R. E., Martin, C. L. & Nielson, M. G. (2019) Characteristics of preschool gender enforcers and peers who associate with them. Sex Roles, 81(11-12), 671-685.