The kindergarten classroom is certainly full of indigestible surprises. I am no stranger to young learners, but what never ceases to astonish me is how quickly—and how much—vomit can spew from a child’s mouth. I was hunting for a crayon with a student when he, rather calmly, turned to me and said, “I’m going to puke now.”
I did not even have the chance to doubt him for a second because, as the last letters exited his palate, so, too, did streams of chunky, orange gunk. Luckily, I was able, in true Matrix fashion, to dodge the physical remnants of day-old spaghetti, but the lunch’s pungent odour lingered in the warm, stale classroom for the remainder of the afternoon. Like an unshakable hex, the thick smell clung above, beside, and on me, serving as a peculiar reminder of the often veiled reality of ELKP (Early Learning Kindergarten Programming).
After I had packed the student’s backpack so that he could be picked up by his mother, I washed my hands, vigorously, and turned my attention toward the corner of the room, where a small group of students congregated around the “house” station, both preserving and perpetuating a hidden curriculum. As I observed from a distance, I noticed several interesting cultural phenomena manifesting in the room: practices, attitudes, rituals and norms which posited the room, truly, as a microcosm of the world outside of its walls.
A couple of boys were sitting, in chairs around the carpet, where they were casting large, colourful paperclips into the centre of the rug. Periodically, one’s face would light up and, moved by his vibrant imagination, he would rise and run to retrieve a paperclip, claiming that he had reeled in a big fish. Trading in their paperclips for long strips of Styrofoam, the male students, who had declared themselves the classroom’s fishermen, delivered their catch to their female counterparts, who were waiting patiently in the nearby house. Once the fish was delivered, the young girls, thankful for the catch, assured the males that, within a matter of minutes, their fish would be prepared and served. In the meantime, as the Styrofoam fish was sizzling atop a wooden sink, the boys and girls conversed in the kitchenette.
The men exchanged stories about their fishing trip, informing the women that they had caught salmon, bass, and even, quite unexpectedly, a large shark. The women, enthralled by the tall tales, continued to ask questions, wanting to learn more about their experience, all the while keeping an eye on the fish to ensure that it did not burn. As the group members continued to chat, others in the classroom, eager to join in on the conversation, approached the kitchenette’s window, where the home’s women greeted them with a clipboard, a piece of paper, and a red crayon. The women of the house informed their new guests that they would need to order the fish, write their name down, and wait for their name to be called. (I, myself, managed to order a piece of fish with a side of pasta, a salad, a vanilla ice-cream dessert, and a glass of milk, for only a dollar).
As I waited along the room’s chalkboard for my own order to be called, I witnessed a boy bring plastic flowers to one of the servers. He commented on how beautiful she looked in her apron. Another girl, noticing the boy’s admiration for her friend, asked her classmate, “What pretty flowers! Are you going to get married now?” She smiled, looked briefly at the boy staring at her, and nodded a few times before calling my name. Order up.
Still now, I am so impressed by the imagination of these learners. It is so pure, untainted, vivacious, and free from the often delimiting strictures of the K – 12 education system. I am in awe of how organized and methodical the process of catching, preparing, and serving a meal was for these students. But I think that I am most fascinated by the defined gender roles and norms that underwrote the playtime context. The boys were proud to be the room’s self-decreed fishermen, the archetypal hunter-gatherers and providers, who shared their catch with their women as a gesture of care, authority, and protection (the order of which may change with time).
The women, eager to take on a role of servitude, quickly and seamlessly became masters of the domestic sphere, entertaining their partners, cooking, and serving them a wonderful meal as a recompense of sorts. They displayed great zeal for taking others’ orders and in discussing their marriage and maternity plans. Together, these children demonstrated an investment in futurity, a desire to court, wed and reproduce, and a subscription to historical, societal gender norms which, in many cases, still ring true today.
When asked about their household role, the boys made it clear to me that they were the fishermen, and that only boys were able (and allowed) to catch the fish. They showed a great desire to protect and defend their capacity from their female counterparts who, happy to be in the kitchen, did not seem to question why they were not the ones “outside,” reeling in the fish.
These students, still too young to know how to write one another’s names or put on their own shoes, seem, on a daily basis, to (re)inscribe stereotypical, entrenched gender roles that, later on in life, they may be asked to critique, change or wholly dissolve. So, what do we teach our students when we allow them to play “house” with no prescribed roles and responsibilities? Are they actually playing and generating ideas organically, or are they simply replicating, both consciously and unconsciously, their real-world contexts? What can we, as teachers and as parents, learn from our students’ behaviours and their normalization of “masculine” and “feminine” duties? If children are so naturally creating and participating within these concrete capacities, what are they learning outside of the classroom, within their own homes? How can we, as educators, work to reverse this manner of thinking? Should we reverse it?
During class, I asked one of the girls why she was working in the kitchen rather than working as a fisher. She told me, quite gladly, that she liked to make people happy and that she enjoys being in the kitchen because she gets to cook and to create. Competing and complementary notions of feminism and post-feminism continue to eat at me. I am enthralled by how gender, from such an early, formative age, is continuously constructed and, more importantly, enforced without children being able to understand or recognize the impacts of both their thoughts and actions.
What are we telling students if boys— men—continue to be providers in our society? If a gesture of kindness and courtship is all it takes to reinforce heterosexual norms of companionship? If we allow girls to occupy roles of servitude and subservience because they want to? As I write, I continue to wonder about this group of students. Will their roles eventually shift? Will men be invited to participate in tasks within the home? Will girls be invited to cast a line into the ocean carpet? Will a patriarchal structure continue to prevail, even in a kindergarten classroom? Or will a matriarchal structure that sees women as masters of the domestic sphere triumph? Will boys continue to line up at kitchenette windows with flowers and expectations of being served and satisfied? Or will girls be the ones choosing which fish and boys to reel in?
Later on that evening, while I sat in my kitchen and continued to ponder our students’ vision of the nuclear, heteronormative family, of heterosexual gender practices and routines, I could not help but roll my eyes and let out a laugh when my partner asked me if we could have spaghetti for dinner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gianluca Agostinelli is an Occasional Teacher in the Niagara Catholic District School Board. He is also a Professor of English and Communications at Niagara College and an Instructor at Brock University, where he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. of Educational Studies.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.