Along a narrow cobbled lane less than a minute away from the iconic Nobel Peace Prize Museum in Stockholm, I walk through a gated playground. Rainbow flags peek through the fence; as I push open the door, I see young boys pushing strollers and young girls playing with tractor toys.
I am in Nicolaigarden, a pre-school for children where masculine and feminine references are taboo. All the furniture is neutrally-colored, and there are no definitively girly or boyish rooms to be seen. Children are playing games that don't divide along gender lines, and reach out for toys that spark their sense of curiosity rather than items designated for them. A staffroom poster with an illustration of a blonde boy in a pink polka dot dress captures the prevailing mood. Its Swedish slogan translates to, "Let everyone be who they want to be."
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Teachers here avoid referring to one another as male or female by adopting the gender-neutral personal pronoun "hen"—meaning "they" in Swedish—as an alternative to the gender-specific "hon" and "han" ("she" and "he"). They also abandon "mummy" and "daddy" and refer to both as "parent"; use "fire-soldier" instead of "fireman". In the classroom, staff address individual children with their names instead of "him" or "her," and use "friends" to address groups of toddlers.
"We want to provide an environment where children can feel comfortable with whatever kind of family they are from, which is why we introduced this kind of language," says Frida Wilkstrom, the coordinator in charge of running operational aspects at Nicolaigarden. "It's not just about being accommodating to those who might not identify as either male or female, or who wish to avoid referring to themselves as one sex or the other. When I was growing up, I became conscious my mother became a single parent after my father died. Here, we believe that it shouldn't have to matter whether a family is made up of one parent, two parents of the same sex, or two parents of different sexes—genetically related, adopted, or otherwise."
Nursery teaching is considered to be a traditionally female role, but men make up half of the 36 Nicolaigardenstaff members who teach and look after children aged one to five. They don't fit the stereotype of the tall and white Nordic blond either— one of the staff photos displayed on the corridor walls shows a Sikh man, and I see a Muslim man with shoulder-length wavy hair speaking in Swedish to young girls playing with toy cars.
Girls here read lines by a prince and boys can play the beautiful princess.
Gender equality is enshrined by law in the Swedish education system, thanks in part to the first national curriculum for preschool in 1998. By 2012, the Swedish government had spent 110 million Swedish krona (almost $13.1 million) on promoting equal rights in schools. Nicolaigarden, a taxpayer-funded institution, is among the most radical examples of the highly egalitarian country's efforts to engineer equality between the sexes. But the law did not set out exact methodologies on how to achieve this, leaving places like Nicolaigarden to figure out the answers themselves.
"For us, the starting point was for staff to film each other to observe how girls and boys react to each other, who did not always conform to gender stereotypes," Wilkstrom explains. "We also researched how young children reacted to behavioral patterns displayed by animals. For example, when we asked children aged three whether they [thought] the duck at the front of the line with its partner and baby ducks trailing after them would be male or female, the answers were about 50/50."
"However, when we asked the same question to the same group of children two years later, there was a staggering difference: The majority thought it was the male at the front of this line, not the female."
The staff went through the process of re-evaluating gender stereotypes by jotting them down in a circular diagram divided into three categories: Colors, emotions, jobs and hobbies.
"Wouldn't be nice if everyone had the right to choose what they [wanted] to do [with] this circle of opportunities, rather than to have half of those?" Wilkstrom says. "We try to teach that through reading and singing exercises, for example. The students do roleplays by swapping traditionally male characters with females and vice versa; girls here read lines by a prince and boys can play the beautiful princess."
"The aim is to give children the understanding that they have access to the same opportunities in life, regardless of their gender, by using teaching methods that allow each child to grow into a unique individual."
Some critics believe that these activities and teaching methods have gone too far, even for egalitarian Sweden. Tanja Bergkvist, a mother and mathematician at Uppsala University who regularly attacks Sweden's "gender madness" on her blog, has accused teachers adopting this kind of approach of being "gender police."
I think that there might be a fear among some people that… we will rob their child of something. We only add. That is how we see it.
"Should I maybe take the children from their parents at birth and turn them in to gender-neutral indoctrination centers where none other than gender experts themselves can have contact with the children?" she writes in an article for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. "Several studies show that the different roles we take on are genetically determined, a biological fact to benefit over thousands of years of evolution—probably for us to survive."
Gabriella Martinsson, who teaches at the Egalia—an offshoot of Nicolaigarden that adopts the same strategies—says that their methods are not intended to "rob" anything from children.
"I think that there might be a fear among some people, that when we work with gender equal teaching, we will rob their child of something," she says. "That we would take something away from a little boy, for example which could be associated with boyishness. That could be that he wouldn't be allowed to play football or play cars. Or [in] the same way, rob a girl from something that could be associated with girlishness. This is not how it is—we do not take anything away from anybody. We only add. That is how we see it."
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Wilkstrom also explains that the school and its staff "are not trying to preach some propaganda" and that they are doing this "in the spirit of inclusion."
"It's important for these children to start questioning what it means to be male or female, before ideas start to cement," she argues passionately. "Why is it that a woman who adopts a stereotypically masculine job is seen as a success [more] than a man who adopts a more feminine job, such as a nurse? Why should it be that women wearing blue is never questioned where as a guy wearing pink might give off certain assumptions?"
"[But] if girls want to play the princess and the boys want to play the prince, they can do so too. That's why we like to cross out that line in the middle of it—no one should have to make a decision based on assumptions."