Gender madness starts when you let skeletons do the dishes.
Dolls ride dinosaurs into battle, dump trucks haul colorful bracelets, and fire-breathing dragons loom over wooden train stations.
This is what an average day looks like on the playroom floor at Egalia, a kindergarten in Stockholm, Sweden.
Egalia is a place where gender neutrality is worked into every level of learning. Including, yes, the toys.
Sweden is often held up as an example of gender equality; the World Economic Forum rated them as having the fourth smallest gender gap in the world, after all.
In 1998, the government passed an amendment pushing for more gender-neutral practices in schools. Lotta Rajalin — a preschool administrator — took the idea and ran with it. In 2011, she and a group of colleagues opened up Egalia.
Walking in the door, you might notice some simple changes. Toys are de-segregated, for instance; dinosaurs, dolls, and motorcycles all end up in the same bin. The books lining the walls are more modern tales rather than old-fashioned stories of knights and princesses.
The biggest change is probably in the teachers themselves.
Egalia has made a point to hire more male teachers. They’re careful not to tell boys to “suck it up” after a fall or tell girls it’s not appropriate to be rambunctious — expectations they themselves admit to harboring in the past.
Even the language they use is different. In the Swedish language, there are two typically used pronouns: “han” for “him” and “hon” for “her.” But when it comes to jobs and roles, Egalia has also embraced the somewhat more obscure gender-neutral “hen.”
They also make sure this linguistic care extends to group activities as well.
“We don’t say, ‘Come on, boys, let’s go and play football,’ because there might be girls who want to play football,” school coordinator Frida Wikström told The Guardian. “We say ‘friends’ instead because it puts yourself on an equal level.”
The school isn’t trying to get rid of gender. It’s gender-neutral, not gender-blind.
Critics have labelled the project as “gender-madness,” accusing the school of trying to brainwash the kids into a genderless homogeneity. Egalia’s not trying to do that. Gender is an important part of people’s identities, and the kids are free to embrace those differences.
But it’s also true genders can come with a lot of baggage. Science shows that pretty much as soon as kids understand that different genders exist, expectations and stereotypes start to creep in. When teachers and other adults talk, kids listen.
When teachers change the way they talk, kids change too. A small study from Sweden’s Uppsala University hints that while Egalia’s kids were just as able to categorize different genders compared with other kids their age, they were also more likely to play with kids of different genders and less likely to assign stereotypes.
Gender is a complex subject. We still have a long way to go socially and even more to study. But when it comes to just letting kids play the way they want, without stereotypes bearing down on them, that seems pretty sane.