Do boys prefer playing with trucks and balls, while girls prefer dolls, because they are socialised from an early age to play this way, or do their play habits reflect innate differences in interests between the sexes? In a world where there are major gender imbalances in participation in science, sport, politics and other areas, this is a controversial question. Evidence for very early sex differences in toy interests could arguably support the idea that the sexes are directed down different career trajectories not just because of cultural expectations or differences in opportunity, but partly because of their contrasting innate dispositions.
A new study in Infant and Child Development contributes to this area by testing the toy preferences of children aged 9 to 32 months during a free-play session at their day nursery. The results, though they come with caveats, appear to support the notion that boys and girls display gender-typed preferences before they are old enough to be aware of gender and even in the absence of their parents, who might otherwise influence them to play in a gender-stereotyped fashion.
Note, the researchers themselves do not frame their study explicitly in terms of gender politics – they observe instead that sex differences in toy preference are “of interest in relation to child care, educational practice and developmental theory”.
Brenda Todd and her team tested 47 girls and 54 boys at four multicultural nurseries in London. Each child was tested by a female researcher in a quiet area away from the other children in the nursery. The child was surrounded in a semi-circle by seven toys identified in a local survey as being stereotypically male (a car, a blue teddy, a digger, a ball) or stereotypically female (a doll, a pink teddy, a cooking pot). The toys were placed in a random order within reach of the child, who was encouraged by the researcher to “play with any of the toys that you want to”. For three minutes, the researcher then made notes on each five-second interval according to whether the child had deliberately held, touched or moved any of the toys.
The researchers divided the children into three age groups: 9-17 months, 18-23 months, and 24-32 months. At every age, there was a clear pattern – boys showed more interest in and played for longer with male-type toys and girls showed a similar bias for female-typed toys. In statistical terms, the effect size for these differences was large. Another finding was that the gender-typed preferences showed a different developmental trajectory for the two sexes: as the boys grew older they showed an even stronger preference for male toys, whereas girls started out with a very strong preference for female toys which diminished to a “merely strong” preference in the older age group.
Among the caveats are the fact that the children may have been influenced by the presence of their peers located elsewhere in the room – prior research has shown that children are more likely to play in gender stereotyped ways when with their peers. Also, it’s of course possible that the children had already been influenced to play with particular toys by their parents or other carers. However, the researchers concluded that “the finding of sex differences in toy choice prior to the age at which a gendered identity is usually demonstrated is consistent with biological explanations of toy preference.” They added that their results also support earlier research using different methods, including a study that showed infants as young as three months displayed a preference for looking at gender-typed toys that matched their own gender.
Todd, B., Barry, J., & Thommessen, S. (2016). Preferences for ‘Gender-typed’ Toys in Boys and Girls Aged 9 to 32 Months Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.1986
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