Gender expression in early childhood podcast header

Gender expression in early childhood [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are excited to welcome Samuel Broaden, Trainer/Consultant at Honoring Childhood. Samuel is passionate about giving children the best childhood possible. He aspires to be the adult that he feels would have been amazing for him to have when he was younger. Someone who supports children as they are and into who they are becoming. We discuss how to create safe spaces for children to develop into who they are.

Children explore so many ideas at a young age and begin to figure out where they fit in. Gender expression is children understanding who they are, what that means, and who they are in relation to the people around them. Creating an environment where everyone is welcome and celebrated for who they are is vital. Children need to feel free to explore different gender roles and figure out what they enjoy and don’t enjoy in a supportive environment.

Show childen they can be who they want to be, like what they want to like and do what they want to do as long as they are kind

Having conversations about gender in the classroom

Children absorb so much, that we want to make sure we are coming to them free of preconceived notions. It is all about conversation and creating a space where children are allowed to ask questions and have open conversations with adults and each other. If you forget something or don’t understand something that is alright, we all come from a place of learning and understanding. These conversations are going to be most successful when they happen in an organic way. You don’t have to have all the answers to start these conversations. It is okay not to know the answers if you are willing to learn.

Gender expression terminology

We need to understand the difference between someone’s gender and someone’s sexuality. Gender is who people feel like they are on the inside and sexuality is who they are attracted to, if anyone. Those things can or cannot have anything to do with each other. Then there is transgender. This means a person identifies as a gender that is not the same as when they were born. It does not have to do with sexuality.

Moving forward

We want to send children out into the world with a mindset of kindness and acceptance that is missing currently. We have to recognize the parts of ourselves that are not conducive to raising a child and work to unlearn and create a better generation of people than the one that came before. You have to be tough and have conversations with yourself to learn as much as you can.

It starts with us. We don’t know what happens when a child leaves the classroom but we know what it is like when they are with us. We have to get past the uncomfortable part. We cannot allow children to feel ashamed or embarrassed of who they are. We see a lot of hate in our world right now for anyone deemed different. It affects everyone. What type of world do you want these children to be a part of as they get older? It is up to you to create that world. You have this time right now to plant these seeds and put these ideas into the children’s minds so that when they do move on they feel safe and empowered. We are all in this together. As long as you are trying and learning that is the most you can do, and that should be celebrated.

Samuel’s recommended resource

Supporting gender diversity in early childhood classrooms: a practical guide

Podcast episode transcript


I think a lot of times adults, especially with children, feel like they need to know all the answers before they start to have conversations. But that’s not true because we’re never going to know all the answers. And children need to see that from us. They look up to us and they need to see that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable about something, but still try to push through and learn to be a better person. It’s okay to not know the answers to everything as long as we’re still working to learn it and be a better person for the people around us.


Samuel, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you so much for having me!


It’s our pleasure. We’re delighted to have with us today Samuel Broaden. Samuel is a trainer and consultant and he’s with an organization called Honoring Childhood. And we’re really excited to talk to Samuel today about gender expression in early childhood. Samuel, let’s start off learning a little bit about you, your background, how you got into early childhood and why you’re passionate about this subject.


Yeah, definitely. So, I’ve been in the early-childhood field for gone about 17 years now. It’s really the only thing that I’ve done. My mom was heavily involved in the field growing up, and so I was always around children. And I had a younger brother come along when I was in high school. So, I did a lot of learning through that, as well. And I’ve just always been passionate about children and giving them the best childhood that we possibly can.

And really, for me, one of the biggest reasons for me wanting to do this work is just wanting to be the adult that I feel like would have been better for me to have when I was younger. And just being that person to support them and who they are and who they’re becoming and really just give them the space to do that. So yeah, I started working as a preschool teacher way back when. And I’ve taught really every age group. I spent some time working as a quality coach when I was living in California. I currently now own and run Honoring Childhood, which offers training and resources. And I also am a school director for a Montessori program here in Portland, Oregon.


Cool. And we’re going to be talking today about gender expression. For some of our audience members who may not even be familiar with that term, let’s maybe start there in terms of, what does that mean?


Definitely. So, like I said, for me a lot of my work is really just about creating spaces, safe spaces for children to really discover who they are and to kind of be that adult that I needed. So really, when we’re talking about gender expression, we’re really just talking about children are exploring so many different ideas at these young ages. And they’re modeling things and they’re trying to figure out where they fit in to the world around them and to their families and all of that.

And so when we’re talking about gender expression, we’re really just talking about children and understanding who they are, what that means and kind of who they are in relation to the people around them, too. So, we see gender expression a lot in these early-childhood programs with children in the dramatic play area, role-playing, family dynamics, dress up. Things like that is where we normally go right to when we think about gender expression.

But honestly, for me, it’s just about creating an environment and creating a program where everyone is welcomed and everyone is celebrated for who they are. And children are free to explore different gender roles, explore different things that they enjoy to do, things that they don’t enjoy to do and being able to do that all in a space that’s just supportive and safe.

A lot of times you’ll hear things from children, too about, “Oh that’s for girls, that’s for boys. We can’t do that,” that type of thing. And all of those are ideas that are placed into children’s mind through adults and through our own lived experiences and things. And so really just trying to take a step back from that and just teaching and showing children that they can be who they want to be and they can do the things they want to do and like the things they want to like. And as I always tell the children as long, “As you’re kind to people around you, then you can do and be anything.” So, I mean, that’s really, in a large nutshell, that’s really kind of what it means for me.


Yeah, cool. And you gave a specific example there of, for example, someone saying some things are for boys or some things are for girls. What are other pragmatic ideas for educators in the classroom to create that supportive, safe space, as you say, for gender expression in their classrooms and in their programs?


Yeah, I think I mean, obviously, for me, one of the biggest things that I do in in my practice in general is, it’s all about conversations. And so I feel like conversations in early-childhood are so important and valuable, not just around this topic but just in general. So, it’s when those things come up – because children are going to say those things, you’re going to hear families say those things, you’re going to hear other teachers say things like that – keeping things to a certain gender or certain toys or for the boys or certain things.

And so it’s just about having that open conversation when those things come up really organically and just talking to them about, “Well, why do you think that? Why do you think that’s the way it is?” And then kind of explaining, “Well, it’s not really like that. Anyone can do anything.” And just kind of having an open conversation with that.

But the first thing that we have to do in order to have those conversations is that we need to be able to do the self-reflection piece on our self and try to figure out if there are any biases that we have or any ideas that we have in our heads, through our own lived experiences, that have to do with gender roles and what those mean to us so that we can really digest those and pick them apart and reframe what that means for us so that we don’t bring those ideas into the work that we do. Because children absorb so much from us.

And so we want to make sure that that we’re coming with the most open mind and that we’re coming kind of free of these preconceived notions that have been placed into our heads, as well. But it’s really all about conversation and just creating a space where that conversation is allowed to happen and the children are allowed to have an open conversation back with the adult, as well.

They’re allowed to ask questions. They’re allowed to speak about things that they’re wondering about. And it just creates that really dynamic and organic conversation piece. And so for me, it comes down to that conversation. But first, we really, really have to do that self-reflection so that we’re making sure that we’re checking whatever bias that we have before we kind of begin that work with the children.


So, you said that conversation is a key, central aspect of this. And of course, with conversation is terminology. What is some key terminology that we should be made aware of, both as adults and perhaps to be using with children that we’re building these relationships with?


Yeah, the terminology is definitely very important. And it can be really confusing. Certain terms that… especially now, I feel like a lot of these terms are becoming more widely used. And so it’s a learning process for everybody. And that’s the most important thing to remember, is that if you forget something or you don’t really understand something, that’s alright. We need to just make sure that we’re all coming from a place of kindness and respect and learning.

But in terms of certain terminology that would be good for the teachers to know, I think that it’s important, one of the biggest things, is we need to understand the difference between somebody’s gender and somebody’s sexuality. That’s a really big thing that a lot of people don’t really… sometimes they get a little bit confused as to thinking, “Well, if the boys are playing with this, it’s going to lead them to be this when they grow up.” Or, “If a person is this specific gender, that means that their sexuality matches that.”

So, we need to make sure that we’re knowing that gender is who people feel like they are on the inside and how they present themself. And their sexuality is who, if anybody, they’re attracted to. And that those two things can or cannot have anything to do with each other. That’s probably the biggest misconception that I hear a lot, just from adults in general, is really confusing those two terms.

And then also just I think another important thing to really understand is the term “transgender” and what that really means and what it doesn’t mean, as well. Because I’ve started to see a lot of in my practice, a lot more children coming into our programs who do identify as transgender. And being able to really understand what that means and then understand that it also doesn’t mean the other things. So, if a child comes in and they identify as transgender, that means that they’re identifying as a gender that is not the same as what they were assigned when they were born. And it doesn’t have anything to do with if they’re going to be gay or anything like that – that’s that sexuality piece.

And so it’s just really important to make sure that we’re really understanding the distinction between gender and sexuality. And also the difference between these gender kind of roles and norms that we’ve put on as adults in our society and how those things also are completely separated from a person’s sexuality.

When I first got started in the field, I did have a lot of conversations with parents and families because I am an effeminate man. And there were lots of parents who would say things to me, like they didn’t want their child to be in my classroom because they that would lead the child to end up being gay. And so it’s important for us as adults to understand that, number one, that’s not a thing that happens. And number two, that no matter what the child is expressing in terms of their gender or who they are as a person that way, that it has nothing, no bearing on who they’re going to be with or who they’re going to be attracted to and that both of those things can coexist.

And really what we need to be doing is just making sure that the children know that they’re safe with us, that who they are as a person is important and valued and celebrated when they’re with us because they’re going to… these are these are very early years that they have with us in a very short amount of time. And they’re going to move on from working with us. And they’re going to be in a community of adults and people past us.

And so we want to make sure that we’re taking them and we’re sending them out into the world with a mindset of kindness and acceptance because that’s really not something that we are currently seeing in the generation of adults that are around us right now.


So, you touched on a lot of really great things there, and thank you for sharing all of that. We talked a lot about conversations and creating a safe space. And you talked about having conversations with adults. What about these types of conversations with children in our programs? Do you typically recommend that this is a proactive, purposeful conversation that we’re having with children? And if so, is there a certain age or is it something that happens more naturally, these kinds of conversations?


Yeah, so I definitely think that these types of conversations are going to be the most successful when they do happen in that organic way. As opposed to, “Okay, everyone, we’re all going to sit down in a circle time and we’re going to talk about what gender means.” That’s not really going to get the solution that we want out of it. But when we’re working to create an environment that is accepting and when questions and ideas come up, when we’re open to having those conversations with children, they’re going to really gain these really important ideas that we want a lot easier than if we were to sit them down and talk through it.

It’s the same thing with any type of activity or any type of play that we want the children to be involved in. They’re not going to get as much out of it as we want them to if it’s something that we’re sitting down, telling them exactly what it is. They’re going to learn a lot more, let’s say, about letters if we introduce it to them in an organic way and we say, “Here’s some apples, let’s do this, let’s learn about this. And this is A and that’s what it is.” As opposed to sitting down and being like, on a piece of paper, “Here’s a letter A. Let’s trace it and now let’s memorize it.” It’s going to stick with them a lot more when it’s organic.

And it’s the same with these types of conversations, as well. Because those questions… and not even if they’re questions, those conversations are going to be happening between the children. I hear it every day when it’s, “This is for boys, this is for girls. I’m a boy.” All those types of things are happening throughout the day. And so when we’re listening and really observing and we can kind of hear that, we can start those conversations around those ideas. And we can get children thinking in a different way than what’s kind of being put into them.

So honestly, I think that the conversation should always be, as much as possible, just organic and in the moment. Because the children are interested in it in that moment; they’re thinking about it in that moment. So, they’re going to attach more to the conversation that we have because they’re already engaged in it. As opposed to bringing up the idea kind of out of nowhere and expecting them to really understand it. Because we want to create a safe place for those conversations. So, it really is the best way to do it, is letting it come naturally.


Yeah, that makes sense. And next question is going back to something you said earlier about adults. And it really starts there, in the adults reflecting themselves so that they can approach these conversations in the right way and create the safe space. Is that something you do with Honoring Childhood? And regardless, how do you go about that as an adult? In particular, let’s say if we start from a place where, let’s say, I’m an adult who isn’t that familiar with a lot of these terms and my comfort level with these conversations is maybe quite low right now. What are things that I can do to bring up my comfort level or my knowledge level to have these conversations and be more informed on this?


Yeah, and I think that’s something that a lot of adults can struggle with because again, it’s sort of a newer idea, especially in the field of early education, too. And a lot of people can feel uncomfortable about it. But really, it’s…  if we’re working in this field and we’re working with young children, we have to be able to spend time reflecting on ourselves and our own thoughts and our own ideas. That just is something that has to happen in order for us to better support the children.

And so it really is doing that work for yourself and knowing that, “I want to create a safe space for these children because that’s the most important thing. If there’s something that’s standing in the way of that for me and I can recognize that in myself, I need to do that in inner work for me to get past that. Whether that’s me reaching out and finding people to support me, if that’s me reaching out and finding other educators who maybe know a little bit more about this or are working through this in their programs, as well, and we can support each other. Whether that’s me just looking for the information, knowing that I need it to better myself and better my practice.”

But we really have to be able to recognize the parts of us that maybe are not conducive to creating a supportive environment for all children. And we really have to be able to do that work. And it’s hard – it’s hard work to really unlearn and reframe a lot of the ideas that maybe we’ve thought for a long time. But that’s part of our responsibility, by working with these young children, is that we are working to create a better generation of people than the one that came before. And so you have to be able to just be tough and have those conversations – even with yourself – and trying to learn as much as you can.

And even if you are still confused or still uncomfortable or any of those things, it’s okay to speak about that, even when you’re having conversations with children. In these conversations, you don’t have to know everything. And it’s okay to talk with the children and say, “You know what, I’m actually not quite sure about this,” or, “I’m actually a little bit confused about this, as well, too. But we’re going to figure this out together and we’re going to work through this.”

Because that is teaching the children just another super-important thing that we want them to know as adults: you don’t always have to know everything. It’s okay to continue to learn. Everyone’s learning, we’re all kind of just in this together. And so I think a lot of times adults, especially with children, feel like they need to know all the answers before they start to have conversations. But that’s not true because we’re never going to know all the answers.

And children need to see that from us. they look up to us and they need to see that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable about something but still try to push through and learn to be a better person. It’s okay to not know the answers to everything, as long as we’re still working to learn and be a better person for the people around us.

So yeah, don’t feel like the conversation can’t happen until you know every single term or you know every single way to have the conversation. Just the idea that you are willing to have it is important. And being honest with the children about what you know and don’t know and just letting them know that, if you don’t understand something, we’re going to figure it out together.

But definitely the self-reflection piece is the biggest part. And it’s tough and it’s hard work and it’s uncomfortable. But it’s just one of those things that really just has to be done because it’s not really an option anymore, whether we want to create these safe spaces for children. Because we see children who feel unsafe and we see children who don’t feel comfortable being who they are. And we see what that can lead to. And we want children to feel fulfilled and happy and valued.

And in order to do that, it starts with us. We don’t know what happens when the children leave our classroom at the end of the day. But we know what happens when they’re with us. And if the time that they’re with us is the only positive and supportive time that they have, that’s a big responsibility. And we need to really just force ourselves to get past the uncomfortable part because the reasoning for that is so important. We need to create these spaces for children. We cannot continue to allow children to feel ashamed of who they are, embarrassed of who they are, not able to talk about who they are and going down other paths because of that. It’s something that we have to do.


And I suppose this sounds like it’s something that is a journey. It’s not going to happen overnight, necessarily. And also, it’s something that you have to do proactively. You have to really try. Like you said, it’s hard work. And so because of that, what would you say to our audience, in terms of why should they prioritize this? Why is this important for folks who are working in early-childhood education to take the time to do this?


I think if we just look around at the world that we’re in right now, I think that that shows us how important it is to make sure that children feel valuable and safe and valued as who they are as a person. We see that there’s a lot of hate in our world right now for anybody who is deemed, quote-unquote, “different”. And it affects everybody. And we see children all the time, we see really young people who are harming themselves and things like that because they don’t have a space that is safe to be who they are.

So, for me, it’s just looking around at the world that we have and thinking like, “Is this the best that we can be? And is this the best that we can do? And is this the world that we want going forward?” And if it’s not – which hopefully is the answer of everybody – it starts at these young ages. And it starts with us who work with children in these young ages. Because so much of what happens to children during this time frame of their life sticks with them for so long,

And if we think to ourselves, so much of who we are as people and so much of the way that we are, the way that we think, the way that we do things, we can trace those things back to our experiences as children, our experiences with our parents, our experiences with other adults. And so when we think about it that way, we can really see how much of an impact these years have on our lives as we move forward, long, long, long past this age.

And so it really just comes down to that. If you are an early educator, you need to think about, what type of world do you want these children to be a part of as they’re getting older? And it’s up to you to help create that world because no one else is going to do it for you. You don’t know what’s happening with the children when they’re not with us. And you don’t know what’s going to happen to them when they leave our program.

And so you have this time right now to really plant these seeds and put these ideas into the children’s minds so that when they do move on, if they are on a journey of their gender and of their self-discovery, they’re going to feel safe and they’re going to feel empowered to do that. And if they’re not, they’re going to feel that they want to empower and keep others safe. And both of those things really should be the main goal of what we want for children.


Yeah. And Samuel, I just want to spend another minute on something you said earlier, which is that this is a learning process and what’s most important is that we’re coming from a place of kindness, respect and learning. Why is that so important?


I think because so many people, they feel like they have to learn this and do it the right way all the time. Let’s say it comes to things like pronouns. When you have a child that maybe uses a pronoun that you think is different than the one that you would have given them; when we think about the language that we’re using in class. We always feel like… and I don’t know if this is just a type of person or if it’s just me, but I feel like a lot of people always feel like, “Well, I have to get it right every time. And if I don’t get it right every time, then now I’m a horrible person. And it’s going to make it worse.”

But even, like… I talk about this stuff all the time, but I still catch myself, especially when it comes to the language that we use, that we don’t really understand that it’s gendered. Like when we say, “You guys,” that’s the biggest one. It’s important for us to try to find another way to speak to groups of children or groups of people without using language that can be thought of as gendered. But I still use that all the time and I catch myself all the time. Like, Okay, ugh, I said it again. I need to find a better word. I need to practice using a different word.”

Because it’s hard, especially as adults, we’ve had our way of doing things for so long. And the unlearning process is very, very difficult to do. But it’s important to know that everyone is learning. We’re all learning together and we all want the same goal at the end of it. And so as long as we’re not doing anything maliciously or anything purposely to hurt somebody, that’s the most important piece. We’re recognizing things that we may say or do that are not conducive to what we want the end game to be. And we recognize that and we try to shift and we try to change and we do better the next time.

I mean, that’s something that can go for life in general. So many of us feel like perfection is the solution, perfection is the endgame of what we want. But that’s never going to happen. And we all just need to be able to work together and know that we’re all trying our best, we’re all coming from a place of kindness and we’re all just in this together. Life is hard already and everyone is just trying to do their best.

And so I feel like if we try to, again, reframe that idea of “perfection is the goal” and we just really break it down to, “I’m just going to do my best because I know that this is important,” the other things, it’s fine if you mess up. It’s fine if you don’t really understand it first. But as long as you’re trying, as long as you’re learning, that’s really the most that you can do. And that is something that should be celebrated because a lot of people don’t even want to do that. A lot of people are against any sort of change of their mindset.

And so if you’re already in the mindset of, “Okay, I want to do something different; I want to be a better person for these children; I want to help give them a better a better experience discovering who they are,” then that’s already something super-positive. So, perfection, isn’t realistic in any facet of our life. And it goes the same for this idea, too. So, no one is perfect. And we’re all just trying and it’s hard. It’s hard to change your mindset on that and it’s hard to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. But again, it’s that work. It’s that really tough inner work that we have to do sometimes if we want to become a better person.


Yeah. And of course, continuous learning and making mistakes is all part of the process. And that aligns so well with the fact that we’re talking about this in the context of early-childhood and all the important learning that happens at those young ages. And also speaking of learning, Samuel, what can you leave our audience with in terms of any resources that you think they could check out that could be beneficial on this topic or anything else related to early-childhood?


Yeah, definitely. There’s a really great book that I read that I use a lot when I’m talking about this and it’s called Supporting Gender Diversity In Early-childhood Classrooms: A Practical Guide [by Maurer, Julian, Pastel, Nicholson, Hennock, Unger, Steele and Flynn]. It’s really, really great. And I like things that really encourage us to think deeper and encourage us in that self-reflection piece. And this book is really great for that.


Wonderful, thanks for sharing that. And what if our listeners want to get in touch with you, Samuel? Where can they go to get more information about your work or get in touch?


Yeah, definitely. The first place I would say is Instagram, @HonoringChildhood. That’s where I do a majority of my content, a majority of my work is through there. You can find every other thing that I do on there. That is probably the biggest one. But also I also have a podcast, the same name, Honoring Childhood. They can find that anywhere that you listen to your podcasts. We talk about gender; we talk a lot about weapon play; we talked a lot about child-centered learning. Just really creating really safe, supportive places for children to know that they are powerful people and that they have power inside of themselves. So yeah, the Instagram and the podcast are probably going to be the two biggest places to find me.


Very cool. Samuel, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today to talk about this important subject!


Thank you so much!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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