Researcher highlights findings from study into gender-neutral preschools in Sweden

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Preschool children

A study by Dr Ben Kenward, Lecturer in Psychology at Oxford Brookes University has found that children attending gender-neutral preschools in Sweden are less likely to form stereotypes about gender than those in traditional preschools.

Dr Kenward is also a Guest Researcher in Psychology at Uppsala University in Sweden where he and colleagues carried out the study. It has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

The study compared children at a preschool with pedagogical practices which de-emphasize gender differences, to those attending other preschools in Sweden.

The study found that children at the gender-neutral school scored lower on a gender stereotyping measure. They were more willing to play with unfamiliar other-gender children and were also less likely to be uninterested in playing with children who aren’t the same sex as they are.

Speaking recently about his research to English-language Swedish daily newspaper The Local, Dr Ben Kenward said: "If you don't limit yourself (according to gender) you have more opportunities for developing, learning, and exposing yourself to situations that allow you to develop. So for example, if you're a girl and you don't avoid the building block toys, or if you're a boy you don't avoid playing families. Boys and girls can all develop though these learning opportunities.”

If you don't limit yourself (according to gender) you have more opportunities for developing, learning, and exposing yourself to situations that allow you to develop. So for example, if you're a girl and you don't avoid the building block toys, or if you're a boy you don't avoid playing families. Boys and girls can all develop though these learning opportunities.

Dr Ben Kenward, Lecturer in Psychology, Oxford Brookes University

"Avoiding playing with children of the opposite gender is something which means you're not experiencing certain kinds of interactions that could help you to develop. I think it's fairly uncontroversial to claim that and you can make those claims rooted in scientific literature. There are studies that show that playing with building blocks for example – something many girls don't do – is an activity known to help develop spatial cognitive skills.”

Gender neutral preschools are still rare in Sweden, so the sample size used in the study was small, with 30 children from gender-neutral preschools and 50 from standard pre-schools studied. The gender-neutral schools were within 1.4 kilometres of the traditional schools.

However, similar research comparing children who attend gender-neutral preschools with those who attend more typical schools did not previously exist, so this Swedish study is unique.

Dr Kenward continues: "There's a long tradition in Sweden of investigations and introspection over what teaching practices may lead to, but this is the first time an evaluation has really compared what the behaviour is like in these preschools in a quantitative statistical way.”

The story has also been covered online in America’s Newsweek.