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Gender and Early Learning Environments

reviewed by Gail Boldt - February 02, 2012

coverTitle: Gender and Early Learning Environments
Author(s): Beverly J. Irby & Genevieve H. Brown (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617353272, Pages: 196, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Gender and Early Leaning Environments, edited by Beverly Irby and Geneviere Brown1, was published in 2011 as part of the American Educational Research Association’s Research in Women and Education SIG.  This volume, the second in the series on gender and schooling in early childhood, is described by Janice Koch in her preface to the book as exploring “a wide range of topics addressing early childhood influences on gender and the development of the whole child” (p. ix).  The 184 page book, made up of Koch’s preface and ten short chapters (ranging in length from eight to twenty-eight pages), takes on topics as different as teachers’ articulated and/or performed discourses of the meanings and significance of gender in a Waldorf School (Wilson), an urban first grade classroom (Lombardi and Foster), and four primary schools in South Africa (Bhana); implicitly gendered readings of children’s approaches to play and work in general education and gifted education classrooms (Nichols); children’s gendered learning of and uses of emotion (Madrid and Katz); relating to and supporting a transgendered child (Fox); observations of girls’ same-race and mixed race playground play (Spindler); the construction of gender on greeting cards intended for children (Polnick and Polnick); understanding and treating the effects of child abuse (Johnson); and pre-service education students’ views on the whether gender is salient in curriculum (Crieghton).  The wide-ranging nature of the book is further evident in the variety of research methods -- including survey, statistical analysis, case study, ethnography, and discourse analysis – and differences in writing styles that reflect formal approaches (statement of problem, literature review, findings and discussion) as well as narrative and theory building.  

One way to understand a book as varied as this is to imagine that, as the second in the series, it is “plugging holes,” sampling topics that were missed in the previous book.  One might imagine there is a little something for everyone.  There are, as I will describe below, a number of chapters that have much to recommend them.  However, the central problem with this book is that the very variety of topics and styles that the editors might have imagined as felicitous denies the book a central focus or a key audience.  

Edited books are tricky in this way.  They have the potential to provide readers with a variety of ways to consider a central topic, working across the chapters to build a potentially more sophisticated, nuanced and varied perspective on a single issue.  Creating an edited book that achieves this potential is the job of the editor(s), who must collect and then edit and assemble a collection of chapters that stand individually but work together to create more than the sum of their parts.  Unfortunately, if Irby and Brown had any greater vision for this volume, it is left to the reader to try to imagine what that might be. The book was published without an introduction by the editors that might provide us with some sense of why these particular chapters were chosen or any guide to how to read them as a collection.  This leaves it to the reader to fill in the absence by imagining scenarios that might have brought these pieces together.  Were these all sessions in a given year in the Research in Women and Education SIG at AERA?  Is it perhaps a collection guided mainly by affiliation – contacting friends and friends of friends to ask who had a piece that might fit?   This sense of confusion about what the book is about is not helped by its putative theme – gender in early schooling – because in fact not all of the chapters centrally deal with gender or with early years.  At least a few of the chapters, while worthwhile if published in another venue, appear to have little focus on one or both categories, with small effort to make them fit by mentioning gender or early childhood in a minor way.

Another problem with the collection is that there is no sense of the chapters building toward anything simply because there is no discernible logic to how the chapters were organized.  Chapters with somewhat shared themes are not grouped together, and there are chapters that are simply not related in outlook, style or argument to any other chapter in the book.  This doubtless represents the wide number of disciplinary backgrounds of the contributors, only some of whom actually research in the field of early childhood.

In spite of the difficulties with the cohesion of the book as a whole, there is one important common element that moves across several of the chapters.  This is a shared post-structural feminist perspective on gender as a social discourse that is learned, performed and reinforced through the many conscious and unconscious discourses and practices that shape daily life and tell us who we are or should be in relation to ourselves, others and the world.  While this perspective is far from new in studies of gender in early childhood, chapters by Wilson, Spindler, Bhana, and Guerra Lombardi and Foster all demonstrate the influence of this position.  In Chapter One, Wilson describes how theories embedded in the Waldorf School philosophy implicitly index masculinity and femininity for both children and teachers.  In Chapter Seven, Spindler looked at five urban playgrounds to see if the activities and nature of girls’ social interactions differed in same versus mixed race girls’ groups.  While her findings were interesting, the study was done with fourth, fifth and sixth grade girls, so its inclusion in the collection was puzzling. Bhana, in Chapter Eight, finds that the assumption of natural gender behaviors and the discourses of  “boys will be boys,” “gender doesn’t matter” and “parents are models” circumscribed the opportunities for girls in four South African preschool settings.  In a study that echoes but does not acknowledge the influential 1988 work of Valerie Walkerdine and 1994 work of Sadker and Sadker, Guerra Lombardi and Foster study mathematics teaching in a first grade classroom. As these earlier studies would have predicted, they find that because the teacher expected the boys to be rowdier and more off task, demanding more of her attention, the boys in fact received more attention and support in mathematics than girls, who were understood as being naturally more compliant, quiet and capable of independent work.  

The chapters by Sue Nichols and by Samara Madrid & Laurie Katz provided what was for me the most novel and thought-provoking discussions of the ways that a post-structural feminist perspective informs our understandings of what happens in early learning settings.  In Chapter Two, Nichols draws on Valerie Walkerdine’s important 1988 research in which she found that child-centered pedagogy, in valorizing the concepts of the “active learner” and “naturally emerging potential” combined with assumptions about masculinity and femininity in ways that positioned the ideal student as male, while denigrating girls as rule-followers, unoriginal and lacking in potential, and female teachers as primarily serving the role of nurturing male genius.  Nichols expands this in her analysis of how, in the current accountability regime, adult directed formal learning in the general education early years classroom – particularly in early literacy activities -- may favor girls’ orientation to school.  Nichols argues that many of the girls in her study, who were more likely than the boys to include work roles such as teacher and directive mother in their play scenarios, had more playful preparation for the realities of work discourses that now are common in early learning settings.  However, Nichols found that in Gifted Education discourses, the child-centered discourses of discovery, initiative, and originality continued to hold sway such that boys, who were perceived to possess these traits naturally, continued to be the ideal student in gifted education.  Nichols’ work contributes to the body of research that demonstrates the largely unconscious and invisible ways that discourses of gender are taken up and rehearsed by students as identities that then map onto varied categories of school success.

In Chapter Three, Samara Madrid and Laurie Katz offer an analysis of “not only how children construct gendered positions, but also how the children’s gendered positions and the play narratives in which they are embedded support specific emotional scenarios” (p. 48).   Recognizing that power relations are exercised in the ability to gain desired positions and opportunities, the authors go beyond noting that the girls frequently took up seemingly passive positions through their on-going fantasy play as kittens.  While recognizing that the girls used ideas and feelings provoked by cuteness and helplessness, they argue that the girls enacted powerful ways of controlling play through the kitten narratives, for example excluding boys from their play by naming them as dogs and therefore too scary to play with kittens, or by gaining admission to boy play by offering themselves to be rescued.  In other words, although the terms through which children gained access to powerful positions in the classroom are gendered, they were able to wield these in ways that allowed themselves the experience of being in control of the narrative.  Madrid and Katz comment further on another favorite gendered and heteronormative play theme -- girlfriend/boyfriend play.  While the children used boyfriend/girlfriend play in much the same way as kitten play – to control, construct and direct play (p. 57), it relied on exclusivities in ways that kitten play did not.  The children recognized that girlfriend/boyfriend play meant exclusive pairings of one boy and one girl, which the teachers saw not only as troubling in its heternormativity but also as interfering with interactions with others.  It was, nevertheless, play the children valued for what it accomplished for them.  Madrid and Katz raise the question of how to create “an environment to let children explore play narratives that might seem to promote gender inequity while also creating new storylines,” to “deconstruct and transform dominant discourses while also supporting [the children’s] social purposes” (p. 64).

The juxtaposition of Madrid and Katz’s chapter with the chapter that follows, Robin Fox’s “May I Still Call You Honey-Man: One Child, Vacillating Gender, and the Experiences of Home, School and Community,” brings to life the question that Madrid and Katz raise.  Fox does not center a particular theoretical perspective, but rather offers an important, thoughtful and moving account of the efforts of a transgendered child named Bryce to be recognized as a boy who feels like a girl.2  The chapter deserves to be required reading in early childhood and teacher education courses.  Fox explores the preparedness of families, neighbors, schools and communities to support transgendered children to be safe and to experience themselves as loved and accepted in dignified ways.  Fox offers a narrative that is thick with love and admiration for Bryce and his family and describes her own efforts to be a nurturing presence and a mentor in Bryce’s young years.  The presence of transgendered children in early classroom play environments may give Madrid and Katz’s final question a particular urgency.  Fox does not set out to explore Bryce’s play experiences in school so we cannot know the kinds of successes and struggles he may have experienced, but it does beg the question of how his efforts at something like kitten and dog play would be received and returned to him.  When does the gendered and heteronormative play that children enjoy have space for powerful non-normative gendered enactments and what is the role of the teacher and the community in creating that space?

Reading through this collection, it was easy imagine the use of one chapter or another in a specific class, some related to childhood and/or gender and some not.  As I hope my comments about several of the chapters demonstrate, the shortcomings of this book do not lie in the quality of several of the pieces individually, but rather in their assemblage.  The justification for publishing this book -- the claim in both the preface and on the back cover of the book that there is a paucity of published research in the area of early childhood and gender -- is inaccurate, and is a claim that is implicitly disputed in the research and bibliographies of several of the book’s contributors.  As someone with strong associations to the field of early childhood, I am left to wonder if the greatest difficulty with the book arose in the fact that neither editor works, researches, or publishes in this field.  I speculate that their lack of knowledge of the richness of research that has occurred in the past thirty years on gender in early childhood means that they did not have a narrative to work with that would give this collection a strong voice, a voice that would promise it an enduring presence in the field of early childhood.


1. While Dr. Brown’s name is listed on the cover of the book as “Geneviere Brown,” she is listed as “Genevieve Brown” on her university’s website and on her own CV.  While I chose to name her here as “Geneviere” to make bibliographic searching for the text less confusing, given the number of uncorrected typographical errors throughout this book, I suspect that her name should have been listed as “Genevieve” on the cover.  If so, I can only imagine her disappointment in seeing the cover in press.

2. Fox notes that she refers to Bryce as a boy and uses male pronouns because Bryce identifies himself as a boy who feels like a girl.  


Sadker, M. and Sadker, D.  (1994).  Failing at fairness: How America’s schools cheat girls.  

New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Walkerdine, V. (1988).  The mastery of reason.  London: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16681, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:07:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Gail Boldt
    Penn State University
    E-mail Author
    GAIL BOLDT is an Associate Professor in the College of Education at Penn State University. She is the Professor in Charge of the Ph.D. program in Language, Culture and Society. Her research interests include analyses of constructions of identity in early childhood and elementary school settings, children's emotional experiences of schooling, curriculum and childhood subjectivities, and children's popular culture. She is the Conference Chair of the 20th Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education Conference, being held at Penn State in November, 2012.
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