When you boil it down, sexism is about one thing – restriction. Saying – you can’t do that, or be that, or want that – because of the gender you are. For everyone, girls and women, boys and men, walls have been built over centuries to prevent us from just being ourselves. Some of these walls we can see, and others we don’t even notice.
One striking way that limitations are put on little girls, even toddlers, is the subtle but pervasive message that they have to stay neat and clean. This is closely linked in with the wearing of clothes that are too fragile and “dressy” to allow active play. So while boys can play in the mud, run and roll and climb trees, wrestle and laugh, girls are supposed to sit and be quiet and nice. More and more today, mothers and fathers dress their little girls in impossibly frilly, delicate and often expensive clothes that in effect say to the wearer “watch out!”, “don’t get dirty!”. We think we are making them feel special, while all we are doing is keeping them from doing their most important developmental task – having messy fun. This is a really dangerous message, because it says in effect – how you look is so important that it affects what you are allowed to do.
So, we have to reverse this. And its so simple to do so. You start by making sure your daughter has, and uses, rough and ready clothes, sturdy footwear, and a durable sunhat, as much of the time as possible – and then letting her know – go for it!. Without any worries about mud or dirt, rips or tears – and washing it off afterwards is half the fun.
Science is on your side in this. Playing in nature, and getting dirty, turns out to be very good for children. For example, researchers think that problems like asthma and eczema may be reduced if your child encounters enough bacteria, bugs and beasties to stimulate their immune system while very young. This may even be the reason that children instinctively put things in their mouths. (If you find yourself flinching at this, perhaps your own childhood was affected by parental anxiety around dirt. And of course, this kind of sexism – boys get dirty, girls stay neat, has been going on for many generations.
Perhaps best of all though, muddy and dirty play gets over that barrier so that they grow up feeling at home in nature, and therefore the whole world around them becomes an adventure, not a fear. A child who is afraid of getting messy or being out in the world of sky and trees, is deeply impoverished. And that mostly happens to girls.
It helps if we stay out of things as much as possible. When kids play, in an unstructured way, without adults trying to make it a “teaching” experience, but just being nearby to apply the occasional band-aid or hug, they go into the most intense learning. And nature is one of the best places to do this, because there is just so much richness of material for play and imagination.
There is even some research suggesting that microbes in soil stimulate the brain to produce higher levels of natural anti-depressants! Children who often play in nature also have lower incidence of ADHD (because it exercises their ability to pay attention) and lower levels of obesity (because nothing uses energy like playing outdoors).
They also see better. Looking at screens like iPads and laptops in early childhood alters the visual brain of a child because everything is the same distance away. In nature, you are holding tiny things up to your face, gazing rapidly away, seeing into the distance and tracking moving things like birds and animals, all brilliant visual exercise.
The texture, complexity and toughness of natural materials means imagination and experimentation knows no limits. Tiny houses of grass, castles of rocks, swords of branch, shelters of old bits of wood.
The small creatures – slater bugs, worms, and beetles they come across bring out a real fascination and nurturing instincts, while ants and bees also remind them there is danger, but it can be managed. Kids naturally love living things – whether its growing radishes, or keeping a lizard for a few hours before letting it go free. In fact, give a toddler their own bit of garden, and they don’t even have to plant anything, they just love to dig it, shape it, or poke sticks into it.
No expensive toys are needed, just a bucket or a few containers, and something to shovel with, a trowel or wooden spoon, and hours of play can result. If its warm, add some water and the real fun begins!
Of course, if there are other kids around, then play possibilities go through the roof. There is then so much learning about initiative, co-operation, and how to get along without adults always stepping in. You can choose to do your own thing, or get going on a joint project, according to your ability and how well it works out.
In short, make sure your girl gets some time in the messy world of nature as often, and as early as you can, and she will become a different kind of girl. She will grow free, strong, unafraid, at home in the world, fit and capable. At least as good as any boy. It makes being a pink princess look pretty boring.