Playing across gender lines

Children should be encouraged to play with toys traditionally aimed at the opposite sex
By Anel Lewis

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My son, aged 5, was recently invited to a play date at a girl’s house, and my initial thought was whether there would be toys for him to play with. I mean, boys need cars and trains, right? Needless to say, Conor spent a delightful afternoon painting and playing dolls with his friend, and there was never issue about the toys being too girlish.
 
Researchers tell us that boys and girls differ physically and socially in the way that they play. So, perhaps the games may have been a bit more raucous if Conor had been playing with one of his male classmates. It’s accepted that boys generally enjoy vigorous activities that allow them to compete against their friends, while girls tend to prefer co-operative interaction where they use language to act out home-based themes. But does this mean that we should restrict our children’s choices by keeping the noisy trucks for the boys, and encouraging our girls to stick to their dolls and toy ovens?
 
Science says so
A 2001 study by the University of Nebraska’s Department of Psychology found that the boys and girls do show a preference for certain toys from the age of two but that their affinity for certain toys intensifies as they are exposed to outside influences such as their friends, parents and, of course, the media. “Girls’ play tends to center on themes related to family and domestic life. In many communities, girls can often be observed playing with dolls, household objects, dress-up clothes, and related materials for creative expression,” note the authors. “Boys are often found playing with transportation toys, weapons, and building materials. They are often noisy in their play, shouting out the ‘swoosh’ of the sword or the ‘crash’ of the car,” they add.
 
This research is borne out by a more recent study by the City, University of London and University College London, which found that children as young as nine months prefer toys specific to their gender. In their findings, published in 2016 in the journal of Infant and Child Development, the team argues that there are biological and as well as environmental factors at play in children’s toy choices. “Biological differences give boys an aptitude for mental rotation and more interest and ability in spatial processing, while girls are more interested in looking at faces and better at fine motor skills and manipulating objects,” says Dr Brenda Todd, a senior researcher at City, University of London. “Our results show that there are significant sex differences across all three age groups, with the finding that children in the youngest group, who were aged between nine and 17 months when infants are able to crawl or walk and therefore make independent selections, being particularly interesting; the ball was a favourite choice for the youngest boys and the youngest girls favoured the cooking pot.”
 
Gavin Keller, the headmaster at Sun Valley Primary School in Cape Town, has become known for his use of neuroscience to explain how boys and girls learn differently. Referring to the differences as “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” Keller says that structural differences in boys’ and girls’ brains in utero affect the way they process information and therefore how they learn. In girls, the left hemisphere – the brain’s language centre - develops faster, which means that when the neural pathways try to cross over to the right hemisphere, this hemisphere hasn’t developed sufficiently to accept them. This results in many girls having a stronger language capacity. The reverse occurs in boys, resulting in a greater interest in spatial activities such as sport and subjects such as maths, science and engineering. “Raising children means working hard to accept the gender difference, but at the same time creating space to lay neural pathways across the gap between our left and right brain,” says Keller.
 
Behavioural differences
But Lise Eliot, a Chicago-based neurobiologist, argues that there is little scientific evidence to back up the theory that boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently. She stresses, however, that she is only referring to the structural differences, and not the way in which boys and girls act. “I want to be clear I am talking about their brains. There are obviously pretty striking differences in behaviour,” she explains. Eliot says that until the age of about 12 months, boys and girls don’t exhibit much difference in their toy choice. Both will play with dolls – probably because children of that age have an affinity for anything with a face. From the age of about one, however, boys will opt for trucks and girls for dolls, often as they start developing their gender identities and become influenced by societal stereotypes.
 
Tech toys
Children are becoming tech-savvy from an increasingly young age, and much of their play involves tablets or computer games. It’s not surprising then that the same gender stereotypes often apply to these games too. As with other toys, many of these games are marketed at either boys or girls. Boys’ games often require hand-eye coordination, and involve a fair amount of action. Girls’ games tend to use their artistic skills for activities such as colouring-in and dress up. But there are also plenty of games that will keep both girls and boys entertained. Toca Boca is one of the development companies that has actively created gender-neutral apps that appeal to boys and girls alike. Conor and his sister, Erin, are both fans of these apps, which involve various activities from driving trains to styling hair. Online games that require construction, involving three-dimensional cubes, for example, can and should be played by boys and girls as they teach important spatial skills. Dr Clare Brett, of the University of Toronto/Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, says while older boys in their teens will use computers for gaming, girls of this age generally use technology for social networking.
 
The role of biological differences in toy choices remains a topic of much debate, but researchers do agree that gender-specific toys can have a significant and even detrimental impact on our children’s development. And many place the blame firmly at the feet of retailers, who in recent years have taken to using the gender divide as a marketing tool. Toy stores are often clearly divided along gender lines, with aisles of dolls and pink-packaged toys aimed at girls, while the boys get to choose from an array of action toys and vehicles in a separate aisle.
 
Aisle bias
A UK campaign called “Let Toys be Toys” is now pushing for retailers to organise toys by theme, rather than by gender. “Boys and girls need the chance to develop in all these areas, but many stores divide toys into separate boys’ and girls’ sections. Action construction and technology toys are predominantly marketed to boys while social role play and arts and crafts toys are predominantly marketed to girls. Both boys and girls miss out this way,” notes the campaign’s website. The campaign also highlights the fact that toys themselves are inherently gender neutral, and that the real difference is how they are played with. While a boy could use a couple of dinosaur figurines as contenders in a ferocious prehistoric battle, his sister may prefer to use them to enact a story.
 
Toys for all
Judith Blakemore, a professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indiana, says toys that are not gender-typed are more likely to develop a child’s physical, cognitive, musical, and academic skills. As parents, we of course have considerable influence over the toys our children play with, adds Eliot. It’s up to us to encourage our children to explore all the aisles in the toy shop, despite the best efforts of retailers and marketers to amplify gender stereotypes. Find building toys that appeal to girls and boys, for example, to encourage hand-eye coordination and spatial skills. Remember that dolls teach empathy, an important attribute for children of both genders, she adds.

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