How to Understand Gender Play


Try this: Make a list of play activities and toys you think are suitable for young boys, and another list of play activities and toys you think are suitable for young girls. To make this task slightly easier, consider your own children or a particular boy and a particular girl you know, and think of the games and toys with which you would want them to play. Allow yourself about ten minutes to compile the lists. Having done this, consider the following questions:

  • Did you find this easy to do? Most people have no problem mak­ing up these separate lists because they know that boys seem fascinated by one set of play activities (such as soccer, play-fighting, toy cars) and girls by different ones (such as brush­ing a doll’s hair, dressing-up, preparing pretend tea parties).

  • Do any activities or toys appear on both lists? Chances are that you identified a number of pastimes—perhaps art and craft activities, reading books, and doing jigsaw puzzles—that you thought suitable for either sex. Most adults agree that these types of activities are acceptable for all children.
  • Are you able to find any common theme running through the boys’ play activities and a different theme running through the girls’ play activities? Most likely, many of the suggestions on your list for boys are action-based, suitable for releasing aggressive emotions (such as toy weapons, toy soldiers, sports), and that many on your list for girls are sedate activ­ities that encourage domestic behavior (such as dress-up activities, toy dishes, dolls).
  • How do you think the parents of a young boy would react if you bought him one of the girl’s toys or vice versa? You would proba­bly find that they would be very concerned if you gave their son a Barbie doll as a present, or their daughter a Transformer.

Those are the easy questions. Now for the difficult ones. Where do these differences in toy and game preferences begin? Are children born with them? Are such preferences created by the media? Do they come from ads on television? Does the play at nursery school or day care have an impact? Do parents inad­vertently encourage their child to play with specific toys? Or is it just chance that boys tend to like different toys from those favored by girls?

Psychologists have considered these vexing issues in detail, but conclusive answers have yet to be found. A number of the­ories attempt to explain sex differences in play preferences. Some theorists claim that males are born with a biological instinct to be aggressive and that females are born with a bio­logical instinct to be domesticated, to have children, and to raise a family. These instincts are reflected in children’s play preferences, these theorists continue, which is why some boys enjoy aggressive play activities, while some girls enjoy more Placid ones. However, this idea fails to explain why some girls’ dislike domestic-based play activities and instead prefer to play more active games traditionally associated with boys.

A more popular view is that sex differences in play stem from social pressures and from the media. You only need to watch commercials for children’s toys to see this. Commercials for dolls never show boys playing with them, and commercials for sports equipment rarely use girls. This inflexible presenta­tion influences the views of adults and children alike.

A more covert social pressure on play choices stems from the language that adults use to describe children. For instance, the term “tomboy,” which is still in common usage today, describes a girl who shows a preference for rough-and-tumble activities. The assumption underlying this term is that these activities are the sole province of boys, and that a girl loses some of her feminine characteristics by playing this way. It’s not sur­prising, then, that such social pressures on children to play in predetermined ways have their effect.

As your child’s parent, you have the greatest impact on her play, because usually you choose her toys. You make these choices partly on the basis of her own interests, but mainly on the basis of your own views about suitable toys. Selection of toys is one of the ways in which stereotyped play preferences are passed down from generation to generation.

Nothing is inherently wrong with girls playing with dolls or boys playing with cars and trucks—or vice versa. Children should be allowed to participate in a wide range of play oppor­tunities, and they shouldn’t be limited to preconceived notions of what constitutes “boy’s play” and “girl’s play.”

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About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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