Is sewing a gender equal play occupation within our setting?

Project summary:

An observational study of the levels of interest and engagement in sewing shown by children of different genders, exploring the impact of different enhancements.

Introduction

The project examined the level of engagement with sewing, seen as one of Froebel’s occupations, shown by children aged 2-5 years within a nursery setting. It offered the opportunity to explore how we could enable sewing to be a gender equal play opportunity while ensuring that the children continued to choose freely within their play, respecting the principle that “play cannot be forced on children” (Bruce 2020, p13). The enquiry matters because we “have the capacity to create environments that…break down harmful gender norms and promote gender equality to ensure that children are free from limiting gender stereotypes” (Gender Equal Play 2020, p3). The purpose in undertaking this work was to increase my own understanding of gender equal play and furthermore, enhance my knowledge and understanding of sewing and the relevance of this occupation today to respond to Bruce’s (2020, p108) question “is being able to sew or weave important?”.

Context

The following points, taken from baseline observations, staff comments and parent questionnaires, provide an insight into the context of sewing within the setting prior to the project

  • 56% of children attending the setting are girls and 44% are boys.
  • Sewing was an existing feature of indoor continuous provision.
  • The provision was hardly used by the children and when it was, it was used by the same few children, the majority of whom were girls.
  • The materials on offer were limited and only supported threading. Necklace making was the main activity.
  • The provision was situated in a quiet area of the nursery where not many children visited.
  • Practitioners did not tend to spend time in this area.
  • Some practitioners shared that they were not overly confident in supporting children with sewing and that any time spent within the area tended to be tidying up.
  • Some practitioners shared that they did enjoy the opportunity to support the children with their sewing and recognised that the availability of an adult in this area increased children’s level of interest and engagement.
  • A parent survey on sewing found that 97% of families knew we had sewing on offer, 7% of children sewed at home, 12% of families had someone who knew how to sew and of these family members, 96% were female.

Methodology

Prior to the project, a summary of the project along with consent form was provided to all parents and staff. A parent survey was shared to gather parents/carers views and experiences regarding sewing. Sewing was discussed with staff during a team time to gather their thoughts on the existing sewing provision and children’s engagement. The project is located within a Froebelian pedagogical approach (Froebel, 1826) which embraces participatory pedagogy (Formisinho & Oliveira- Formisinho, 2012), emphasising the role of the adult in consciously creating opportunities for children’s participation. Narrative observations of individual children and small groups of children took place over four weeks, carried out as part of my daily practice. The children chose whether they wanted to sew within their free flow play and if they did, support was offered when requested, commentary provided and questions raised based on observations and in response to what they said, following a freedom with guidance approach (Bruce 2021).

During the research, before taking any photograph of children or recording their spoken words the permission of the child was sought and their response respected. Some photos and observations were uploaded onto individual children’s learning journals to share with parents, some taken to gather time as stimulus for discussion and others were added to the nursery floor book as a means of capturing children’s voice. Different enhancements were added including – materials such as leaves, petals, shells, buttons and beads for threading and sewing onto binca – hessian on embroidery hoops with spools of different coloured yarns, threads, ribbons and string – donated fabrics and old clothes to cut up and explore – felt and stuffing – books and photos about sewing – staff mending nursery items including clothing

“I love that sewing is happening in a setting where sewing is not seen as a gendered activity – i.e. a girl’s thing” (Parent)

Findings

Gender – As the project progressed and different enhancements were added, more children engaged with sewing and the number of both boys and girls increased. Although girls continued to be in the overall majority, more boys than previously observed were using the sewing and neither gender showed a preference for a particular enhancement. What this reveals perhaps is that the provision became more interesting to the children, increasing their curiosity to explore and revisit, igniting their intrinsic motivation (Bruce 2021).

Environment – The decision to move the indoor provision to a busier area of the nursery where children passed through on route to other spaces, and where adults spent more time, quickly resulted in more children engaging and more adults taking time to observe and support children sewing. During the third week a sewing basket was created for outdoor use and many children were keen to come and sit on a blanket, some choosing to thread natural materials or watch what was happening. Perhaps the unlimited space encouraged more participation and the curiosity of those children who prefer to be outdoors was sparked by something different going on. These observations highlight how spaces should be responsive to the needs and interests of the children, a view advocated in our most recent practice guidance Realising The Ambition (Education Scotland 2020) and what we assume the children need in terms of a space for certain activities, in this case quiet and calm, is not always the case.

Role of the adult & Relationships – When a familiar adult was present, the number of children engaging increased as did the duration of their engagement, highlighting the significance of the adult, “the people with whom a child interacts with are of central importance” (Bruce 2021, p142). Froebel recognised that those working with other people’s children should be well trained, knowledgeable and nurturing. When such adults are available to be with children, observing, interacting and building on interests, children’s confidence and autonomy increases. During the project some new children joined the setting and some of them chose to spend time sewing, sitting close to the adult and returning to the provision during their initial visits when an adult was present – the adult was providing a safe and secure base for these children and relationships were being established.

Schematic Play – Our two-year olds’ level of engagement with the sewing provision increased during the project, revisiting the provision throughout the day to feel the fabrics and yarns, emptying, refilling and transporting materials and spending sustained periods of time winding thread onto empty spools. The sewing provision for these children supported schematic play, it was like a treasure basket and emphasised the importance of heuristic play for this age group.

First Hand Experiences – Through conversations with the children around the purpose of sewing it became apparent that not all children had an awareness of the process of sewing and that clothes were made before they were available to buy at the shops. A tailor was a word they had not heard before and the idea of replacing a missing button or mending a hole was a new thought to ponder. This highlighted not only the importance of first hand experiences for children but also how items could be fixed or altered rather than thrown away, encouraging a more sustainable approach to counteract the disposable culture which exists in today’s society.

Conclusion

Is sewing a gender equal play occupation within our setting? I would say yes, it is. Our children did not refer to it as something that was girl or boy specific and both genders are engaging with sewing at nursery. Perhaps this is because our children’s experience of sewing outwith nursery is low and therefore gender stereotypes in relation to sewing do not exist or have not yet been established. Although the initial focus for this project was about gender it has opened up conversations within the staff team about many other features of practice and provision along with the opportunity to revisit the Froebelian principles which navigate our setting. On a personal level as a practitioner, it has encouraged me to trust children to lead their own learning without a preconceived outcome, allowing me to be spontaneous, flexible and in the moment.

Research implications

Exploring gender is part of our ongoing work as a service to facilitate our vision of providing
an inclusive and nurturing experience for all children, families and staff. The research project
offered the opportunity to delve deeper into an existing Froebelian occupation within our
provision, sewing, which may be perceived as a gender biased activity. In addition, it has
raised the status of sewing within the setting, highlighting the benefits for all children in
relation to developing fine motor skills, building relationships and providing a rich context for
language and communication.
Play pedagogy is embedded within our setting, with Froebelian principles navigating our
practice and underpinning our provision. The unassuming manner the practitioner interacted
with the children during the project, taking their lead from the children, observing and
responding sensitively to their uniqueness and competency, with a freedom with guidance
approach (Bruce 2021) resulted in a project which the children led rather than a project
which led the children.
Observation is key to our planning so the methodology of the project was in keeping with our
policy and that of our current national practice guidance, Realising The Ambition (Education
Scotland 2020). With children’s permission, photographs were taken and comments noted,
the children were active participants within the research, using the resources as they
wished, a sensory experience for many, especially our youngest and an opportunity for
others to try out and share their own ideas and opinions.
Resourcing in terms of materials was low – prior to the project sewing provision was in place
– needles, threads and yarn, buttons, binca, hessian, weaving looms and embroidery hoops
were within the setting but only threading was available daily. Donated fabrics including
unwanted clothing added to our resources and inspired rich conversations around who
made our clothes – where and how, along with a rediscovery of vocabulary such as tailor,
darning and thimble

Practitioner enquiry

As a setting we value highly practitioner – research, recognising the positive impact it can
have on children and families experiences, supporting professional development of staff and
providing a vehicle for service improvement. Often practitioner research can stay within the
boundaries of individual settings – the opportunity to share with cluster colleagues or locality
leaders might be a way of enabling them to become routine practice.

Leadership learning

Supporting the research project enhanced my understanding of the need for all team
members to feel valued, that this raises confidence and self-belief for the individual and can
have a catalytic effect within the team – others begin to raise their own questions.
Furthermore, it was an opportunity to take a step back after leading through a period of
significant change and uncertainty, and it served as a reminder that leaders don’t need to
have the answers but, more importantly. have the ability to build capacity within the team to
collaborate to find the answers together (Fullan 2020).
The relevance of Sewing and Froebelian principles today has, for me, been illustrated by.
this research project. The opportunity for first hand experiences, supported by
knowledgeable and nurturing adults, who understand the importance of relationships is as
relevant today as it has always been, perhaps even more so as we navigate the everchanging landscape of early learning and childcare.

Author and role

Tracey Thomson, Acting Head of Centre

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Rebecca Innes
    Rebecca Innes
    25 May 2022 at 5:31 pm

    What a great project! I remember chatting to you in the breakout rooms about your project and it’s so nice to see it come together with such success! I find it really interesting that you managed to take the project outdoors – I don’t think I have ever seen sewing outdoors before but think it’s a fantastic idea and shows how amazing responsive planning can be!


    Report comment

Add a comment