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You Can't Be What You Can't See

When I was in primary school, I honestly thought that doctors were all men and nurses were all women.

At home, I had a very nice nurse’s dress-up outfit with a lovely pic on the front of a girl dressed as a nurse and a boy dressed in a matching doctor’s outfit – with a stethoscope! Oh, how I longed to swap the little white bag with its red cross that came in my box for that purposeful and potentially life-saving stethoscope in the doctor's box. IT NEVER EVEN OCCURRED TO ME that I could be a doctor, or my brother could be a nurse!

Amazingly, I still encounter this in some young children – the idea that nurses are all women is clearly culturally still very prevalent. Similarly, I often get a snigger or a guffaw from a few children when I show them pictures of boys or men in dresses.

So where do these ideas come from? Every day most of us, including young children, are bombarded with images all around us – some in real life and many digitally. What messages are we getting from all these images? What are they suggesting about our potential in life? Maybe you could ask your class what they think? I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid I really didn’t see much in books, posters, or on children’s TV that made me think that being a doctor was a possible route for me, or that my brother might become a nurse one day. And I certainly didn’t see anything that suggested that boys could wear dresses or girls could grow up to fly planes.

If the adage is true that you can’t be what you can’t see, then how can we help broaden the horizons of the children in our class? Let’s start with a look around our classrooms. What are the children looking at when they walk in or when they’re sitting at their table? Is it sending out a gendered message? (or one limited by race or colour or physical or mental ability too?) Is it expanding a child’s horizons, helping them to dream big or just to know that the world has way more options than they’d previously thought?

Obviously, not every picture in your classroom is relevant to this discussion, but children spend a lot of time looking around them and building up their knowledge of themselves and who they are and can be, so here are some things you might like to consider:

• Ask the children. What messages are they getting from the pictures? Are there any images they would like up there?

• Do your displays depict a variety of people – not all the Romans were men or white but it’s easy to forget that when we are making displays. Could you have a picture of a female scientist or mathematician or archaeologist on a relevant display board? Do you have pictures that reflect a wide variety of different families?

• Is it gendered? Have you tried the gender test? If you changed the gender of the person in the picture, would it be perceived differently? If a man was wearing this outfit, how would you feel? If a boy was playing with this toy, would it feel different from seeing a girl playing with it? Would seeing a woman in this profession look unusual compared to a man?

• Are there images up around the class and books in the book corner that expand the children’s view of their own potential and choices in life? – for example a female pilot, a male preschool teacher, a boy playing with dolls or reading a book, children who are doing fun exciting things whose gender isn’t immediately obvious, women playing football or firefighting, boys with long hair and girls with short hair (goodness hair comes up a lot when children are identifying someone’s gender!) and so much more.

You are going to have lots of ideas on this subject – teachers are so awesomely creative. And we are all magpies too, so please share your suggestions and ideas for things you’ve done to expand your children’s perceptions of the world in the comments, or on our free Facebook page

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