In Sweden’s Preschools, Boys Learn to Dance and Girls Learn to Yell

Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

STOCKHOLM — Something was wrong with the Penguins, the incoming class of toddlers at the Seafarer’s Preschool, in a wooded suburb south of Stockholm.

The boys were clamorous and physical. They shouted and hit. The girls held up their arms and whimpered to be picked up. The group of 1- and 2-year-olds had, in other words, split along traditional gender lines. And at this school, that is not O.K.

Their teachers cleared the room of cars and dolls. They put the boys in charge of the play kitchen. They made the girls practice shouting “No!” Then they decided to open a proper investigation, erecting video cameras in the classroom.

Science may still be divided over whether gender differences are rooted in biology or culture, but many of Sweden’s government-funded preschools are doing what they can to deconstruct them. State curriculum urges teachers and principals to embrace their role as social engineers, requiring them to “counteract traditional gender roles and gender patterns.”

It is normal, in many Swedish preschools, for teachers to avoid referring to their students’ gender — instead of “boys and girls,” they say “friends,” or call children by name. Play is organized to prevent children from sorting themselves by gender. A gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” was introduced in 2012 and was swiftly absorbed into mainstream Swedish culture, something that, linguists say, has never happened in another country.

Exactly how this teaching method affects children is still unclear.

One of the few peer-reviewed efforts to examine the method’s effects, published last year in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, concluded that some behaviors do go away when students attend what the study called “gender-neutral” preschools.

For instance, the children at these schools do not show a strong preference for playmates of the same gender, and are less likely to make assumptions based on stereotypes. Yet, the scientists found no difference at all in the children’s tendency to notice gender, suggesting that may be under a genetic influence.

At the Seafarer’s Preschool, the effort sometimes has the feeling of a venture into uncharted territory.

On a recent Friday in Hammarbyhojden, south of Stockholm, Elis Storesund, the school’s in-house gender expert, sat bent over a work sheet with two teachers of the 4- and 5-year-old Seagulls, reviewing their progress on gender objectives.

“When we are drawing,” said Melisa Esteka, 31, one of the teachers, “we see that the girls — they draw a lot — they draw girls with lots of makeup and long eyelashes. It’s very clear that they are girls. We ask, ‘Don’t boys have eyelashes?’ And they say, ‘We know it is not like that in real life.’”

Ms. Storesund, 54, nodded thoughtfully. “They are trying to understand what it is to be a girl,” she said.

Ms. Esteka looked frustrated. She had set a goal for herself: To stop the children from identifying things as “for girls” or “for boys.” But lately, her students were absorbing stereotypes from billboards and cartoons, and sometimes it seemed like all the slow, systematic work of the Seafarer’s Preschool was flying away overnight.

“There is so much they bring with them,” she said. “They bring the whole world with them. We can’t stop that from happening.”

Sweden’s experiment in gender-neutral preschools began in 1996 in Trodje, a small town near the edge of the Baltic Sea. The man who started it, Ingemar Gens, was not an educator but a journalist who dabbled in anthropology and gender theory, having studied Swedish men seeking mail-order brides in Thailand. Newly appointed as a district “equal opportunity expert,” Mr. Gens wanted to break down the norm of stoic, unemotional Swedish masculinity.

Preschool struck him as the right place to do this. Swedish children spend much of their early life in government-funded preschools, which offer care at nominal cost for up to 12 hours a day starting at the age of 1.

Two schools rolled out what was called a compensatory gender strategy. Boys and girls at the preschools were separated for part of the day and coached in traits associated with the other gender. Boys massaged each other’s feet. Girls were led in barefoot walks in the snow, and told to throw open the window and scream.

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