At Sweden’s Gender-Neutral Preschool, There’s No Boys or Girls, Only “Friends”

Imagine if your city just announced a new publicly funded preschool where children are referred to exclusively by gender-neutral pronouns and addressed as “friends” rather than boys or girls. The school has filled its bookshelves with stories of LGBTQ families, single mothers, and adopted children and doesn’t teach traditional fairy tales like Snow White or Cinderella because they promote restrictive gender stereotypes.

No, this isn’t a scene from Michele Bachmann’s worst nightmare. Welcome to the Egalia school, open to children ages 1 to 6, in Stockholm, Sweden. While Sweden has always ranked near the top worldwide for gender equality, the staff at Egalia aims to further eradicate sexism starting with the youngest members of Swedish society.

Jenny Johnsson, a teacher at Egalia, explains why the school decided to provide a gender-neutral environment: “Society expects girls to be girly, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing. Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.” The school’s director, Lotta Rajalin, adds that “This is about democracy. About human equality.”

Egalia, which means “equality” in Swedish, places an emphasis on educating children about non-heteronormative families, with LGBTQ themes at the core of its curriculum. The students have freedom to choose which toys to play with, and the legos are intentionally placed right next to the kitchen playset.

My first reaction to this story was “Awesome! If only I had been able to grow up in that kind of environment!” As a trans woman, it certainly would’ve made it easier for me to accept my gender identity at such a young age.  But even as a preschooler, I knew that I was a girl. So, I’m not sure if a completely gender-neutral environment is necessarily healthy either. While enforced gender roles are oppressive, gender is still a very important part of most people’s identities. I don’t think the solution to patriarchy is to completely ignore gender.  Maybe there is some sort of middle ground where the children at the school are able to self-identify their gender if they choose to?

They seem pretty happy to me

What I found most amusing was the near-universal knee-jerk reaction of the media coverage of this story. Rolling Stone featured it in their Daily Threat Assessment section and called the school “radical” and “surely misguided.” A Chicago Tribune writer joked that “the entire nation will probably become extinct in two generations.” And Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at UC Davis, warned that “gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness” because “the kind of things that boys like to do — run around and turn sticks into swords — will soon be disapproved of.”

Really guys? A preschool that doesn’t assume that all boys enjoy stick fighting is too radical to even comprehend? One thing’s for sure- if I wanted kids, I’d rather send them to Egalia than your average American public school, where more than 90% of queer students report hearing homophobic slurs on a regular basis. And judging by Egalia’s long waiting list, a lot of Swedes agree with me. What do you think?

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I'm a 23 year old femme lesbian living in SF. Once upon a time, I was a USC frat boy ;) I ♥ music so please recommend your favorite artists to me!

annika has written 21 articles for us.

65 Comments

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    as a little girl, I liked to run around and turn sticks into swords. also pot lids into shields, springier bits of wood into whips, and the little plastic playhouse, tipped on its side, was a fantastic sailing ship. The twin girls at my preschool were the undisputed leaders of playing Mutant Ninja Turtles. And I used to tie my friends to chairs, if they let me. So there, Mr. Stupid Child Psychologist man.

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    I didn’t gather that they were working to prevent the children from thinking of themselves as gendered, it just seems like the staff is trying to do everything in their power to prevent themselves from imposing gender on the kids. Like the goal isn’t to make a child not see gender at all, just to make them not see gender FIRST.
    For most people gender is one of the first categorizations we put on other people, and it probably is because it’s the first one we have concrete experience with in our development. And this compulsion can be harmful.
    If they have LGBTQ books, surely gender is present in them but it wouldn’t be presented as the limiting category most children are subjected to.

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      This.

      People think of gender first everywhere. Just today, I was talking to a friend who told me she was hesitating between a few specialties (we’re med students currently doing a surgery internship) because she likes it when there’s some kind of balance between men and women, and she doesn’t like that all surgeons are guys.

      Which I can understand. But then she added “you know, because men can do things like, in a very direct and precise way and be very efficient, but women can be more tender and also they can bring a good atmosphere to the service.”

      My response was pretty much “wha– O_o”. Then I shut up. Did not know where to start.

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      That’s what I gathered from this as well. The model for erasure can be found when people speak of practicing color blindness. This almost, ALWAYS means that there’s a child of color in a school that’s mostly white and the school spends most of the time spouting “color-blindness” when really what they’re practicing is active ignorance of race and our relationship to it in this country. (This is my experience of “color-blindness”.)

      Egalia’s approach doesn’t feel like erasure. It feels a little bit more like an invitation (for the small human beings) to explore all of the possibilities of gender identity without the illogical and thoughtless categorization that most of us are brainwashed into. I feel like a child who wanted to express specific gender would not be badgered in that environment. Rather, a child deviating from the “norm” would be wholly welcomed and nurtured. But then again, that’s what I really, really hope is the case.

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    I love this idea for a gender neutral school. While I’m typically idealistic, I’m not sure we are ready for this here in the U.S. I’m constantly surprised by the gender-typical extra- curricular activities kids are involved in these days! Such a shame. There are so many options.

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    Northern european countries are so much more socially advanced than the rest of the world, I can’t help but be jealous and wonder why that is. If by any chance there are AS readers from this area, I’d love to hear about the perception of gender and LGBTQ stuff there.

    My only concern about this project is how would the kids adapt when they’ll go into a “regular” school after preschool where they’ll probably be expected to conform to gender norms and take them for granted. Hopefully by then their mind and sense of self will be strong enough to not get crushed by the sudden change.

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      Living in Sweden, I’d say it varies. Where I live (same place as this preschool) people are usually well educated, upper middle class.. white. LGBTQ movement is not questioned and the Pride parade is more of a big party for all.

      This gender thing.. I’d say more people are aware of the difference between sex and gender than in other places? It is discussed rather often in media. It is supposed to be mentioned and taught in the equivalent of high school. Homophobia is generally unacceptable though.. Oh, and ‘officially’ our government and those in charge tend to embrace gender studies and LGBTQ. Again, this is where I live.

      generally, Swedes are rather polite and may gossip and refer to gayness and stereotypes but I have seen none of the horror stories I hear about from other countries about discrimination etc. Just my experience..

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      Iris pretty much summed up the situation in Norway as well. Of course it varies, but even where I live, which is a quite rural area, I’d say that most people are generally very accepting of the LGBTQ community. People aren’t necessarily that aware of differences between sex and gender, but even if they might not understand it, they accept it and don’t really care how other people live their lives. The only real exception is certain parts of the country (mostly in the southwest) where there’s a high concentration of conservative Christians.

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      oh, its far from perfect over here. not sure about the other scandinavian countries, but in sweden transsexual people are forced to get sterilized in order to get treatment and are also forbidden to have children. welcome to sweden 2011. of course, this is not exlusive to sweden but seems to be the standard in most countries, but its still pretty horrifying in my eyes.

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    My only objection is that I read that they have consciously removed books such as Cinderella or snow white – those fairy tales have their own value! ‘Censorship’ won’t help.

    Saying that, I grew up in and live in this area of Stockholm. While I am not suprised this initiative comes from here, well.. sadly I don’t see *that* much support for it among general population.

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    I’m Swedish, haven’t live at home for 4 years though. In my experience, the public conversation on feminism and lgbtq issues is a lot more advanced in my home country than where I live now (UK). I also think the discussion is being had by people who are a more culturally, socially and economically diverse than in many other countries and who are better informed about the issues.

    That being said, Sweden isn’t free from homophobia or sexism or racism or any other number of problems. However, the discussion is more nuanced, thanks in part I think, because we have a socialist (flee republicans, fleeeee) tradition in our country. The right wing of our parliament is pretty much equivalent to the US Democrats (with the exception of the Swedish Democrats).

    I’m sure this new preschool won’t be uncontroversial (though not as controversial as it would be in say the US, can’t imagine the shit storm). However, its existence is a testament to how far along Sweden is and how enabled people are to challenge social boundaries.

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    im totally for gender equality in an early age. in the schools i worked with kids where allowed to play with whatever they wanted legos, lincoln logs, house (included kitchen and babies), puzzle, whatever. most of the kids i have encountered (strictly speaking ages 4-7) don’t have a clear concept of gender rolls, unless the parents stress it on their kids. these are the kids that will typically say “i don’t want pink because it’s a girl color.”

    generally, i think early grades like pre-k and kindergarten there is gender neutrality. i do see a complete loss of it in 1st grade and beyond and i’m gonna put the blame on parents and their “community” because lets face it, learning starts at home. kids act out behavior they see at home constantly.

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    Annika, the fact that you reblogged this from me and are now posting it on Autostraddle gives me such joy. You are the shit.

    I think this is amazing. As to your concern, Annika, I think the whole point is to allow the children to develop their own identities without the outside reinforcement of gender labels. And it’s only a preschool, so I’m pretty sure the kids will have plenty of time to have their assigned genders pushed upon them by the rest of society.

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    I LOVE this idea! I think it allows more freedom of development on an individual basis rather than the children trying to fit/be forced into conforming to preconceived gender binaries. I find that even as an out lesbian I feel pressure from the Gay community to fit some form of Heterosexist stereotype. Perhaps this model will eliminate such cultural molding and allow personal determining of gender expression. (Too bad the US is not this progressive!)

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    I like this idea, for the most part. I love Sweden, and living there as an exchange student was great because of what a non-issue being queer was there. I never heard a single anti-gay slur or even had to try to explain or defend my sexuality. It was a wonderful place to live. That said, I am a bit off-put that it sounds like none of their books have heterosexual couples. I love that they have all the non-traditional books, but wouldn’t a wider variety be more representative of reality?

    But over all… Heja Sverige!

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      I’m wondering if that might have been a translation error or exaggeration on the part of whoever wrote the initial article/press release. There’s some hyperbolic language in a lot of the articles I’ve seen that practically contradicts what the teacher is later quoted as saying…

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        I wondered this, as well. It seems more likely to me that there may be an error in reporting than that there are seriously zero heterosexual-couple books in Egalia… Yeah, the more I think on it, the more I think you’re right.

        Does anyone have any links to interviews/quotes directly from the teacher? I’d like to hear that they have to say on the subject.

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    I like the idea of the open-mindedness and letting kids play with and do whatever the hell they want, regardless of their sex. BUT I’ve never been a huge fan of completely gender neutral environments, because, as was said, gender is an incredibly important part of many — dare I say most — people’s lives. Taking that from a young child could potentially be harmful in the long run.

    Let the kids choose what they want to be called, on an individual basis. Let everyone play with legos, kitchens, dolls, and sticks, regardless of sex. And realize that while a lot of people don’t come from heteronormative backgrounds, many people do. And that’s perfectly ok too.

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    It’s amazing how bent out of shape people get at the slightest whiff of gender-neutrality. (And okay, I suppose this is more than a slight whiff, but still.)

    P.S. I don’t think “Egalia” means “equality” in Swedish (it doesn’t look very Swedish to me and it isn’t one of the translations offered on Google Translate, which before you roll your eyes is actually pretty accurate a lot of the time). My guess is it’s just a Latiny-looking non-word that they made up to evoke a sense of equality.

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    i think this sort of thing would only work if the entire world agreed. cuz now, when the kids leave this school not comprehending the rest of the world’s ideas about gender, they will be very confused.

    maybe if they were less extreme about it, like using gendered pronouns. also, the kids seem to be dressed according to gender so the outside world is going to come in. (AKA i’m super jealous of that girl’s leopard print pants)

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      It’s hard to tell from the article, but I suspect they only use those non-gendered pronouns when the person’s gender isn’t known (like the example of a tradeperson coming by). That’s just a guess, though, based on the quotes from the teachers.

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    I asked my boss, who grew up in Sweden and still reads Swedish newspapers online, if she’d seen anything reported about this. She said she saw one article – but that was more an opinion piece saying, “So, wait, why does the rest of the world suddenly care about some preschool in Stockholm?”

    I asked her because the articles I’ve read largely seem like a bad game of Telephone.

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      That is an interesting response. I read a similar comment from an Icelandic man in response to the election of Johanna Siguardardottir, who is married to a woman – he thought it was ridiculous that anyone cared about Icelandic politics just because all of a sudden there was a GLBITQ person involved.

      It’s a bit of a crass generalisation, but maybe indicative of social attitudes amongst the Nordic countries? I say this as someone who has lived in one of them, albeit for a short period of time… and is going back again for more :D

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    i made bows out of branches and rubber bands and arrows out of sticks. and acted like i was a hunter and stuff.

    well shit, i still do that.

    what i mean to say is, given the opportunity, we figure things out on our own. it’s really cool that these kids have that opportunity. The only reason I got to act out my genderqueerness is because I live out in the country and no one thinks twice about a little girl roughhousing it with the boys, up to a point. yeah, they may not like us homos, but they did tolerate tomboyness. so I was lucky in a way.

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    “No, this isn’t a scene from Michelle Bachmann’s worst nightmare.”

    OH, BUT IT IS.

    Now she’s got to watch out for Swedish people: they might kidnap her and torture her via “King and King” story time.

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    I caught an article about this on Yahoo, while checking my email, and thought to myself “That’s AWESOME!”. Then, because apparently I am an idiot, I scrolled down to read what some of the Yahoo comments had to say. Thank god for Autostraddle, where the comments are not only usually smart, but also legible.

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    So a little disclosure here: I teach preschool. I’ve read other articles outlining the technique that Egalia uses, and I utilize some of the approaches that they do. I make it clear that my classroom is a space where kids don’t have to be subjected to commentary on what they do based on gender roles. We have a lot of class discussion when the kids say stuff like “pink is for girls” and I’ve had to have long talks with parents about how I deliberately will not contribute to that kind of thinking or force their child to perform or not perform some gendered activity. Disney princess and basically all commercialized or stereotyped representations of childhood/gender don’t come into my classroom. I honest-to-god keep a copy of Heather Has Two Mommies, among other books on similar subject matter. While we do use words like “he” and “she”, I have a general habit of using gender neutral language which kind of carries over. For the most part my director is supportive and places families with me who will be amenable to my philosophy. I think in the end it’s about creating a safe space for the kids to be expressive and my families most often recognize that.

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    I love reading about this but at the same time I don’t know if I could do this with my own kids. I love the idea but not sure if its out of protection or out of not wanting them to not know about gender differences. . . I like the idea of each child exploring whatever colors, subjects or desires they wish without respect to biological gender, but I think the world is already slowly turning that way. And what is wrong about presenting both heterosexual and homosexual relationships? I think all relationships should be presented. And I am a lesbian mom too.
    All in all though I would love to listen to how this all turns out for the children 10 years down the road. If this was beneficial or not.

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    This just renews my desire to move to Sweden, a desire I’ve had since I was 11 and I first visited my relatives there (my dad’s adoptive mother is from Sweden) and saw the awesomeness that was Stockholm.

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    “I’m not sure if a completely gender-neutral environment is necessarily healthy either. While enforced gender roles are oppressive, gender is still a very important part of most people’s identities. I don’t think the solution to patriarchy is to completely ignore gender. Maybe there is some sort of middle ground where the children at the school are able to self-identify their gender if they choose to?”

    I have to comment on this! I’m from Sweden, I’ve read the original articles. The pre-school Egalia actually doesn’t deny a child’s self-identified gender identity. Neighter do they ignore or deny biological gender.. SO: This IS the middle ground where the children are able to self-identify their gender if they choose to.

    Also, I read in the comments that people think that Egalia doesn’t have books with heterosexual couples in them. From what I’ve heard, they DO have, but maybe there is something else that breaks some kind of norm, like the couple’s etnicity or something. The fact that they don’t offer stories like “Cinderella” is because they believe that the children get to read enough stories like that at home.

    It’s funny to see autostraddle (and afterellen) write about this. But you should make a follow up article where you have more correct information. For example, that headline you have that says “there are no boys or girls” makes it sound like they don’t allow the children to have a gender identity, which they actually do. The original articles in Sweden newspapers are actually pretty good and explains that they don’t correct the children when they say he or she, but are instead trying to give the children all opportunities regardless of gender.

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      By “biological gender” you mean sex, right? “Gender” usually only refers to the non-biological (at least, non-anatomical/chromosomal, which I assume is what you mean here) aspects, like one’s personal gender identity or presentation.

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        There’s a great book by Judith Butler called ‘Bodies that Matter’ where she critiques the notion that physical ‘sex’ or ‘biology’ exists outside gender, essentially because we (as beings who encounter the world through language) only encounter the material / biological through a worldview that is inherently gendered. In that way it is possible to speak of a biological gender, or at least of a gendered biology. Not sure if the OP was using it in that way here, but it’s certainly possible to do so.

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          I should check that out! I need to read more Judith Butler. I read bits of Undoing Gender in a class sophomore year, and I have Gender Trouble but haven’t gotten around to it.

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          this is a late reply, but I just had to say that I think I did mean to write “biological sex”, but I’m glad I didn’t, because I agree that the biological doesn’t exist outside of gender.

          Also, an update. This preschool is currently receiving threats from the extreme right. The teachers are being threatened and it’s just sad and scary. Sweden’s not a paradize.

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    I LOVE the idea of letting kids choose what they want to play with, and teaching them about same-sex couples and single mothers from a very early age.
    It’s the use of gender ambiguous pronouns that I’m not a fan of. I don’t see the harm in referring to a schoolmate as “he” or “she” if you’re raising them to be open-minded, and encouraging them to spend their time doing whatever they want. For instance, I have always been very conscious of my “she-ness”, and grew up watching the Disney princesses. In school though, I gravitated towards boys, played with Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and Star Wars figures. The only girls’ toys I played with were animal types (My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, stuffed animals, etc.). I love comic books and superheroes. But I was always able to easily reconcile my biological sex with my gender.
    I just think that raising kids without any concept of their own biological sex could be dangerous for them in the long run. In spite of the insistence that all of our behavior is a product of socialization, fundamental differences ARE evident between the sexes. I see it in my infant nephew. His little girl playmates are quiet and passive, whereas he is very aggressive and active. Gender-free is totally great, but I don’t think that sex-free is.
    Would being raised sex-free truly be good for a trans kid? I dunno…would life be easier for a child who identifies with boys, but is confused as to why they’re growing breasts? That would be so scary and confusing I think. I speak as a straight gal, but I’m pretty sure that dealing with THAT, not understanding why you look so different than the kids you identify with would be a lot more difficult than understanding that you are female-bodied, but male. Or vice versa. Either way, it isn’t easy.
    Does that make sense? This is a tricky thing to talk about!
    Also, HAPPY CANADA DAY to my fellow Canadian sisters!

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      “I just think that raising kids without any concept of their own biological sex could be dangerous for them in the long run.”

      this is not what they’re doing (from what I understand, at least). their biological sex has nothing to do with it and they’re free to identify as whatever they want, its just the social aspects that are ignored (boys do this, girls do that) and really, I don’t think people base their gender identity on “he” or “she”. the finnish language doesn’t even have gender pronouns, but use the same for all. I agree that there are differences between genders (hence, transgender folk) but to say that all girls are quiet and passive (for example) is to force a definition on people and thus making everyone who doesn’t fit the description feel weird and possibly get into trouble because of it. gender identity has little or nothing to do with how well lwe fit certain stereotypes, its about how we feel towards our own body.

      “Would being raised sex-free truly be good for a trans kid? I dunno…would life be easier for a child who identifies with boys, but is confused as to why they’re growing breasts?”

      but this is actually a very common experience for transgender people. far from everyone know early (and even fewer at the age 1-5) what they identify as, even if the signs are there. in cases where (for example) a transgirl is not very “girly” or “feminine”, but instead behaves in a way that is considered “boyish/manly/whatever”, she won’t have those social aspects to base her identity on and so she is just going to get depressed and feel bad about it, because the biological aspect will still be there (“you can’t be a girl, because they’re like this and you’re not”).
      so I believe without social gender roles, transgender people will not say “I think Im a girl” or “I think Im a boy” but instead just “theres something wrong with my body”. and to a “genderless” society this will not be seen as weird either (or at least not in the way it is in present day), because it will not be a person “changing their sex” but just “correcting their body so that it better fits with the brain”. which is, obviously, a much more accurate description.

      ’tis 5 AM in the morning and I feel like shit so I hope some of that made sense. sorry for ranting and I apologize if I sounded aggresive in any way, I did not mean to be rude.

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        Not aggressive/rude/ranty at all! You stated your opinions very eloquently and sweetly! You’re totally right, though. Thanks for clearing things up for me in a way that doesn’t make me feel like a “dumb straight girl”. :)

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    Part of me feels like removing “gender specific” from the environment would be a good thing; maybe it would change the number of kids who have a trans gender identity (not necessarily trans sex identity) and feel that horrible feeling of wrongness and desperation for change. But it wouldn’t matter what type of clothes you wore or what things you do or the games you played. Perhaps it could foster a type of person inwhich attributes of the sexes and genders were present. Where someone could be a man, a woman, both or neither at their choosing, regardless of their physical body. Humans could see sex as a type of body and not a societal/sociological mold/confinement. This version of the world, I feel, might be the only place for true equality to blossom.
    Does this make sense to anyone?

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      yes, absolutely. though even in a world like that, I believe the number of transgender persons of all kinds would still be mostly the same as it is now, the difference would be that no one would care or even notice, because without socially established ‘genders’ there would be no ‘trans’.
      sounds too good to be true though, so I kind of doubt that this will ever happen, but one can always dream, no? :)

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    We all start out life as female from our source – the egg. Then a man determeines the sex. In every man is female and male sperm. The male sperm is longer thinner faster and dies quicker. The female sperm is shorter fatter slower but lives longer. And thus the differences are set from the origins of life. But we all are connected but different. I think we should all be able to express ourselves to our full potentials in life but to deny our biology is absurd

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      What is absurd is your fallacious construction of our biology.
      Genetics is more complicated than that and sex differentiation is more than genetics.

      Life does not follow these simple essentialist rules. Culture attempts to impose them on life.

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    Ah, this is why I love Sweden and wish to move back.

    I am also pretty sure that Egalia does not mean equality – that really should be fixed. Jämställdhet does not sound like a nice name for a school…

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    The thing about that is that I think Swedes understand these concepts a little better. There’s more room for explanation in Sweden anyhow. Culturally, it just makes more sense. Having lived in both Sweden and the US I see this being very much something the Swedish culture has done well at developing.

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