Infants show a preference for toys that ‘match’ their gender before they know what gender is

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.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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

further reading
At what age do girls prefer pink?
Children as young as four express liberal views about gender
Mother-toddler play-time is more interactive and educational with old-fashioned toys
What do children make of robot dogs?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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12 thoughts on “Infants show a preference for toys that ‘match’ their gender before they know what gender is”

  1. very interesting but what abt familaiar? if a child before identity is given certain toys at home by caregiver these are familiar so with stranger researcher although they may pick other toys they may also reside with the familiar and the comforter. is this not case?

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  2. This is literally the silliest thing I’ve read in awhile. Most parents will be buying toys geared for each gender from the moment they find out if they’re having a boy or girl. So the fact that the children reach for the toys that are for their gender isn’t in any way surprising. Of course the boys are going to reach for the “boy” toys and vice versa! Seriously.
    If they truly wanted to do a study like this they would need to set it up with kids who have been given both “girls” and “boys” toys equally since they were born.

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    1. That wouldn’t remove socialisation that would just demonstrate the level of effectiveness of a version of very deliberate socialisation by a particular type of parenting choice. The researchers have have attempted to balance socialisation by researching on children they consider too young to be socialised already. Your assertion is that there is no such age, it happens from birth, which takes the view so backwards that it becomes a natural consequence of environment, like the sex of crocodilians.

      If you could test children who have never been given gendered toys at all, that would work better. Without reading the study and just going by the reported information, a larger methodological concern is the lack of control or genderless objects for the children to select. The ball has been classified for boys, that doesn’t make much sense, that a ball suitable for 9 months plus could be a gendered toy, the child would too young to associate the ball with male games or sports. It also uses blue and pink teddies, in other words the colour as gendered. Ergo they have mixed in a colour test with an object test. So you have two factors that are immediately problematic, the children are going to be interpreted as male or female preferring no matter what they do, and they might not even be testing gendered preferences at all.

      This makes the research lower quality and means the entire probability of the conclusions or assertions depends on very large preferences being shown, especially from the toys are are more clearly gendered. The data for by how distinctly different the play times were isn’t given.

      The problem of poorly done and badly reported research seems to be a more distinct one. However at least in some factors the researchers are being reported to have considered reducing influence on the child, at least to the point where direct adult influence is reduced. And it is adults whom, social constructivists are ‘blaming’ for gender preferences.

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  3. How does a kid who “doesn’t know his or her gender” recognize a frying pan as a frying pan? If s/he knows what it is, it’s probably because s/he’s seen someone using it, most likely his or her mother. Other than that, it’s just a circle with a stick, nothing “stereotypical” about it, unless you want to put culture back in the mix.

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