11 DECEMBER 2015

My colleague, Anna Daly, and I were recently asked to submit a proposal for an activity at our local Festival of Feminist Arts. Anna is a community dance artist and I am an early years educational consultant and together we run Primed for Life Training Associates. We provide input for anyone working with young children and their families, through a very particular focus on physical development and movement play.  Our target audience for the Festival proposal is babies and young children (3-5) together with their parents and carers.  Working the way we do, we knew that our proposal was going to involve a fair bit of  dancing and jigging about, but we weren’t quite sure where we were going to go with the ‘feminism’ bit. However, we were both equally convinced that there should be an early years focus at every Festival of Feminist Arts. Babies are subjected to gender bias from even before they are born (now that parents generally know their child’s gender in the womb) – even down to the colours in which it is considered acceptable to dress them, and boys as well as girls can be limited by  the ‘pink and blue’ stereotypes that still abound.

As is the case with all aspects of equality, it is the subtle use of institutionalized language that can influence and maintain the status quo, even if nobody technically subscribes to it anymore. Of course, we try to tell girls (and boys too) that they can grow up to be anything they want, regardless of their gender – farmers, scientists, firefighters, doctors, astronauts – but the songs and rhymes we sing to babies and young children largely continue to tell a different story.  As an early years teacher, one of the easiest ways I have found to provide a gentle challenge to this kind of gender bias, was to flip it around – so we decided to make this the focus of our proposed activity.

This kind of ‘gender flip’ is most easily done with a simple change in pronoun. So the farmer’s in her den and down on Old Macdonald’s farm, she has the usual array of noisy pigs, cows and sheep. It can flip the other way too. There’s a very popular song sung in nurseries and playgroups everywhere– ‘Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick’, which involves the rocking of a baby and calling for the doctor. With a gender flip, boys get to hold the dolly and call for the doctor to come quick, quick, quick. The song continues:

The Doctor came with her bag and her hat

And she knocked on the door with a rat – a –tat tat.

She looked at the dolly and she shook her head,

She said ‘Mr. Polly put him straight to bed.

She wrote on a paper for a pill, pill, pill.

‘I’ll be back in the morning if he’s still feeling ill’. 

Sounds simple, but for practitioners and parents who have been singing it for years, it requires real concentration to flip the pronouns appropriately! Similarly, the ring game based on Sleeping Beauty, which usually starts with ‘There was a princess long ago, ‘ changes to a song about a Prince who falls asleep for a hundred years and is woken up by a ‘brave princess’ who comes riding by. Once you start, it is easy to see alternative options in many of our traditional songs and it all adds to the fun, as well as providing a gentle challenge to some of the preconceived ideas and stereotypes inherent in nursery songs and rhymes.

We don’t advocate religiously flipping every pronoun in every single song – we just want to give parents and practitioners permission to play with these kinds of ideas, providing children with alternatives as well as a strong sense that roles do not have to be fixed by gender. We aim to playfully stimulate the questioning of assumptions, encouraging adults to reflect on their own fixed perceptions and allowing children a full scope of possibility when exploring gender roles through rhymes, songs, stories and dance.

Challenging gender stereotypes in the early years is fundamental – for boys as well as girls. Our experience and research tells us that gentle, playful interventions like this build parent (and practitioner) confidence and therefore have an increased likelihood of long-term positive outcomes for young children. We don’t know yet if our proposal will be successful, but we can recommend you give it a try when you are next down on the farm singing with Old Macdonald and her noisy animals!


Anne O'Connor is a co-founder of Primed for Life Training Associates, who provides input for anyone working with young children through focus on physical development and movement play. Anne is also an Associate of Early Education and Osiris Educational, a regular contributor to Nursery World and author of Understanding Transitions in the Early Years : Supporting change through attachment and resilience.