For kids, creativity rules the world. As a FoodCorps Food Education Service Member, I’ve witnessed students rely on creativity for every lesson we do—whether it’s engineering solutions to garden problems, brainstorming scenarios in a play about apples, or making weird nutritious and balanced food combinations.
However, as children grow and explore the world around them, they also begin to sort the world into numbers, groups, and categories to gain understanding of their experiences. During a lesson in a school garden planting spinach with kindergarten students, one student loudly exclaimed, “There’s four of us here, two boys and two girls!”
I instantly came to a pause—finding myself at a common intersection where I could choose to respond or let the comment slide, where I could stand true to my identity or hide it. I took a deep breath and responded, “Actually, I don’t identify as a girl all the time. Some days I’m a girl, sometimes I feel like a boy, sometimes I’m neither, but I’m always me!”
Another student excitedly replied, “Oh yeah, I remember that you’re they them!”
I laughed, “Yes, good memory! I use they and them pronouns, and I also use she and her pronouns for times I feel like a girl.”
He continued, “Cool! My mom has a friend who’s nonbinary. Sometimes he feels like a girl, sometimes he feels like a boy, sometimes he’s neither.”
“That’s awesome! I’m happy that you have such positive role models in your life. That explains how I experience gender as well. There are many different ways we can be ourselves and experience the world.”
The other two students in the group looked joyful and curious, with smiles on their faces as they shifted to squishing soil between their fingers and talking to their spinach transplants.
While this was but a brief moment, it was a momentous one. As children are constantly making new discoveries about how the world works, this specific interaction taught them a few beautiful but necessary lessons. It reflected a diversity of ways to be a human, showed respectful and age-appropriate examples of how to speak about gender and pronouns, and demonstrated how to stand true to your identity.
As we approach the end of the school year, and as Pride Month unfolds, I continue to reflect on the many policies, systems, and institutions we interact with daily—which are notably built by adults. I wonder how these would look different had any children been consulted. Have you spoken to a kindergartner lately? A second grader? Have you lived a day in their expansive and complex inner worlds? Children are more capable, intelligent, open-minded and understanding than many adults give them credit for.
When I think of education that affirms LGBTQ+ identity, I first think of my students. Their creativity, passions, diverse interests, curiosity, and imagination. I think of an education that doesn’t box children in—one that allows them to explore an entire world of magic and possibilities.
A world that lets them make a snack of rice cakes, peanut butter, and corn—and love it!
A world that lets them experiment, fail, and try again—in science, with food, in the classroom, and with themselves!
A world that lets them name their sprouting classroom spinach whatever they desire! And one that lets them name themselves whatever they desire!
When I first began teaching food and garden lessons for FoodCorps, I didn’t contemplate much about the necessity of queer representation in schools. It was important to me, but I quickly became busy hauling bags of produce between classrooms, planting radishes in raised beds, and taste-testing the Indigenous Three Sisters dishes.
However, with every whispered and loudly exclaimed, “Hey, I like your rainbow laces,” and “I love your rainbow earrings!” I realized they were more than just accessories. They were badges of representation! Of affirmation. Of belonging. A sign to students that they are safe to be who they want to be, in whatever way that is. A message that there is a diversity of ways they can be true to themselves, and that they are allowed to think and live with imaginations that are broader than those that came before us. To think outside the box, outside of constructed binaries, and to blaze their own trails.
I hope by now you are thinking, “How can I further support all of my students, friends, family members, and community—LGBTQ+ included? How can I be a queer-affirming human, coworker, educator?”
It’s actually quite simple to cultivate an educational space that supports and affirms LGBTQ+ folks: give students the space and opportunities to fully and safely be themselves. Cultivate curiosity, experimentation, imagination, respect, love, and kindness. Don’t limit your students, force them into binaries they don’t belong in, or assume their identities are fixed in one place. Take an active stance to offer help and mitigate harm. Ask for their preferences, be curious about their likes and dislikes, and respect every aspect of their individuality. Allow their creativity to run wild, and structure your classroom and community to foster open-ended curiosity and compassion for every person.
If we were to allow children to engineer a better world, or were to ask them for input on the structure of our spaces, I truly believe it would be a beautiful and bountiful place. Every space would be full of colors, of magic, of play and fun and wonder. But most importantly, it would be a world that accepts and loves all people. By cultivating spaces that affirm LGBTQ+ identities, children are taught to embrace difference, to develop a strong sense of self-worth, and to respect their community regardless of different identities.
The importance of diversity is already celebrated in our educational system—in the food we eat at lunch, in our lessons on the natural environment, even in the skills and interests that make up a classroom. However, we must progress this forward to accept and unapologetically affirm the diversity of all of our students and communities—just like my kindergarteners displayed—because if every one of us aren’t represented, none of us truly are.