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Dreams of a Six Year Old Girl

Have you ever spoken to a six year old girl? Seemingly the epitome of confidence,the world is her oyster, and she believes she can be anything:

  • An astronaut;

  • A ballet dancer;

  • The President;

  • All at the SAME TIME.

Moreover, young girls frequently do better than boys in elementary school, where their abilities to sit still and follow rules often makes their teachers give them plenty of gold stars.

The traditional thinking is that young girls’ confidence doesn’t drop until they hit puberty. But something else is happening during the ages of five to seven, as children develop cognitively, becoming aware that others are evaluating their behavior.

As a well designed experiment found, at five years of age, girls say that both genders are smart, but by six years old, they classify boys as belonging to the “really really smart” category at a higher rate. Thus, what children see and hear during this developmental stage shapes thinking in ways that adults may not always see or recognize.

In fact, even at younger ages, children quickly absorb the stereotypes we communicate about activities and skills associated with each gender. Children learn in the context of their social and cultural milieu and the messages they are given (from parents, media, teachers and other socialization agents) promote gender identities, sometimes with stereotypes attached to them.

The good news is that in the US, things may be starting to change.  One study found that when asked to draw a scientist, kids in the United States increasingly draw women. Back in the sixties and seventies, when asked the same question, less than one percent of children drew a female scientist. Today the average is twenty eight percent. But still, as kids get older, they begin to draw more men in this role. At five or six girls draw the same number of men and women, but by seven and eight they begin to draw more men.

So there is still plenty of work to do. Luckily research has helped us become more aware of these biases. Moreover, companies who create media and product for kids are helping change entrenched patterns. Many companies are focusing on creating strong female characters, and their audience is responding – even boys!  

What can you do to help encourage your child to dream big and help your girl recognize that boys and girls are equally “really really smart?  One answer: Play! Play helps girls understand the possibilities because this is when children practice the gendered behaviors they see from role models. And young kids like to play with the objects that will teach them the most.

Here are a few ways caregivers can support their children so they start to internalize gender equality:

  1. Choose media that highlight strong female role models.

Why? Because research shows that representation shapes the way we think.

  1. Highlight real life female role models, including yourself if you are a woman.

Why? Because connecting to the real world helps make children understand what’s truly possible. And young girls focus on what their female caregiver is doing.

  1. Encourage boys to diversify their play patterns. Support their play with dolls, and help them recognize that women are equally brilliant to men.

Why? Because until we recognize that boys can enjoy more “feminine” pursuits, masculine stereotypes of strength and brilliance will persist and undermine progress for women.

Yalda Uhls, Founder and Executive Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Disclosure: This blog post was written independently and reflects the author’s own views. It was written in support of the Dream Gap project and was paid for by Barbie.

From Beer to Big Bird to Blue’s Clues: Research has Impact

Beer

What do selling beer and selling the alphabet have in common? They are forever tied together by the simple genius of Joan Ganz Cooney. Given the challenge to try to make something good out of television that could positively impact young lives, she first made one clear insight- kids loved to watch commercials. “Children all over the country were learning beer commercials so they were learning something, but could it teach something of potential use to children?” asked Cooney. Clearly, the songs, jingles, and production of the commercials kids were seeing were attracting a young audience, but Cooney didn’t stop there. She did what would lay the foundation for perhaps the most important kids show of all time. She did research.

In the summer of 1967 Cooney took a leave of absence from her job at WNDT and, funded by Carnegie Corporation, traveled the U.S. and Canada interviewing experts in child development, education, and television. At the end she had a document to work from:  “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education” and from that sprouted not only the show, “Sesame Street” but also the Children’s Television Workshop, a model for working and creating.

Research had impact.

Her research and work continues to impact children not only in America but worldwide. Doing research and really understanding her audience and their needs also ended up being great for business because the show really worked for kids. They were selling the alphabet and kids were buying in.

Fast forward a few decades to “Blue’s Clues,” another show that revolutionized television for kids. And like Sesame Street, the creators of Blue Clues also spent time before the creation of the show thinking about child development and how it plays into making content for kids. They did research.

Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson—the trio that developed Blue’s Clues—wanted the show to be entertaining as well as educational. Santomero held a master’s degree in child developmental psychology from Columbia University but the novice team also enlisted the help of educators and consultants to craft a format that reflected the latest research in early childhood development.

Integrating this research into every episode, the show emphasized problem solving skills and audience participation in a way no other children’s program has before. While “Sesame Street” used bite sized content to connect with the audience, “Blues’s Clues” used a narrative, and empowered preschoolers to help the host, Steve, figure out clues. Not surprising, Blues Clues was also a runaway success, both with kids and from a business view. .

So the next time you watch one of those catchy beer jingles online or on TV, we hope you think of Joan Ganz Cooney and her desire to “sell the alphabet to preschoolers” or think of the amazing creators of Blues Clues who changed the model for getting preschoolers to interact with the screen. Because for both, research had impact.

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

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