Use play to change career trajectory
- Sensory play encourages toddlers and children to engage in activities that facilitate exploration, naturally encouraging them to use scientific processes while they play.
- Having children from poorer households inventing, innovating and improvising their toys speaks volumes of creative potential that can be nurtured for science courses.
It was a curious thing watching my toddler, a girl, interact with other children in the countryside over the Christmas holidays.
First off, she is very assertive, very active and very hands-on. So, we found that dressing her in shorts, trousers, gumboots and T-shirts often puts her in good stead to keep up with older children in running, rolling and, well, fighting for resources during play.
At a family gathering in the countryside with a hat to boot, even with her pierced ears, I frequently got the question as she took off after yet another mischief plan hatched or pandered to where the father sat conversing with older men to stare at their choice of consumables, “You said that your child is a girl, right?”
It almost started to sound like a way to trigger me to rein her in.
Which was funny, as my friend who stayed over in the city shared photos of her three-year-old daughter decked in an English football team’s replica kit, on all fours like a tiger ready to pounce, having hit the bottom of a bouncing castle-cum-slide.
To her extreme left, two girls in pink princess-themed outfits were holding the tails of their dresses and using an improvised step ladder to go up the castle.
It made me wonder if we apply a genderless approach to raise them not to view opportunities via a foggy lens or we have a subconscious agenda to build the next generation of Amazonian ‘princesses’ ready to tackle the obstacles that we had, especially as mothers, encountered.
The toys section in the supermarket and toy shop aisles are gendered. Blue and Pink.
In the blue section are the mean machines, the balls, the dinosaurs and the construction workers, and army figurines.
The girls get the dolls with a change of outfits — save for Doc McStuffins in her pink-derived outfit and caring nurse Hallie — the kitchen, dollhouse, gardening tools and coloured rubber bands to make trinkets.
I may not know the ‘science’ that went into the colours, but the toys are the first socialisation to tell girls to be compassionate and nurturing and boys to grow being strong and ready to experiment.
So, what if your daughter smacks the doll on the floor? Or your son would like to prepare an elaborate meal for his ‘soldiers’?
Can the doll be a patient and your child not necessarily a future serial killer? Can your son begin to appreciate how elements come together towards a great result without being labelled ‘weak’ or ‘soft’?
It is encouraging that, even in a developing country like Kenya, we are embracing early childhood education methods such as sensory play.
This encourages toddlers and children to engage in activities that facilitate exploration, naturally encouraging them to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore.
Though not widespread, it is a good attempt at moving the focus away from structured, gender-specific play.
In addition, having children from poorer households inventing, innovating and improvising their toys speaks volumes of creative potential that can be nurtured for science courses.
As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science today, it would be useful to go back to the very beginning.
To the everyday: The different personalities that reside in our girls, evident in how they express themselves, what they hear, from whom and with what impact.
It is at this stage that we can improve on our response to what interests them.
Career talks when they have already advanced in their formal education are a difficult tool to use to inspire a mindset that has developed and been validated by the immediate environment.
Even if done by women at the top of their science careers, the opening narrative is usually how few girls took the course in the first place, making them sound ‘unique’. Girls can enjoy collaboration, yes, but they can be fierce competitors as well.
Media interviews must consciously front women in their daily science professions without the ‘mother of five and choir lady’ as a qualifier of ‘yes, you can be a successful scientist, but you will look and sound better as a woman if you have a functional family or suitably approved social life’.
Let us see the rocket scientist as well as the demographer, the marine biologist as well as the forensic ballistics expert simply marvelling in their career accomplishments.
Trust that your girl is intelligent, and that your guidance will inform her eventual choices.
She is not unfeminine when she competes to light the next baruti. Her abandoned E-Z-Bake oven doesn’t mean she might never enjoy cooking.
Help her to unburden herself from fitting into a mould that may not fit. Let us start with play. Buy blue and pink.
Ms Juma is a communications and policy officer, African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC).