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Having boy/girl twins, I find it interesting to compare their development over time. Recently my son started standing on his own and has learned to throw things. His favorite toys are balls that he can grip easily in one hand and toss across the room. Being able to stand means that he can throw two balls to great effect. But my daughter is indifferent to balls. (She prefers fabric toys.)

I don't think any of us biased the twins toward these sort of stereotypical toy preferences. Is there any evidence that boys and girls are drawn toward specific types of objects based on gender?

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Purely anecdotal. My 1-year old daughter loves to play with balls. In fact, she prefers kicking them rather than holding them... –  nimrodm Mar 16 at 15:02

3 Answers 3

I found quite a few scholarly, peer reviewed articles about play and gender-stereotyped toys through my university's library. For example, I found one article about child play assessment with male, female, neutral based toys. In the content of the study, work was drawn in that noted "female" toys exhibited traits such as being attractive, creative, or nurturing while "male" toys were reality-based, aggressive and competitive. The study of 30 children showed that males were most attracted to masculine rated toys (trucks, cars, farm sets). Despite this, the study showed that females were more attracted to neutral based and male based toys. Another interesting note was that children's play had more complexity when children played with female-stereotyped toys [1]

Personally, I believe there is a certain stigma surrounding boys playing with female-stereotypes toys. When girls play with male-stereotyped toys, the level of acceptance is much higher. I can only hypothesize as to the reasons why that is. In the case of my daughter, she loves to play with toy balls. She likes to throw a bouncy ball around the house and then chase it to do it over again. She enjoys pushing around my wife's balance ball. She also has a basketball hoop attached to the side of her toy rack that she enjoys. I think it's personal preference from the beginning. I believe pressure from peers and parents are the key factors that force a certain gender to a certain type of toy. Children will play, no matter what, as long as the toy is interesting.

[1]: Cherney, Isabelle D., et al. "The Effects Of Stereotyped Toys And Gender On Play Assessment In Children Aged 18-47 Months." Educational Psychology 23.1 (2003): 95-105. PsycINFO. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

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The overwhelming experience of parents is that individual children have strong preferences for certain kinds of toys, and that aside from a certain amount of overlap, these preferences tend to fall along gender stereotypes.

That's not a politically correct idea, so people have spent time studying the idea, sure there must be some parental bias involved, and in some cases have found it. They've also found ample evidence of certain children that don't meet the stereotypes. However, it would be very difficult to find evidence that were children to grow up completely devoid of parental and peer influence on toy choice, that they wouldn't tend to develop toy preferences along gender stereotypes. In fact, there are a lot of stories of parents who actively promoted cross-gender toys, and who were frustrated when their children nevertheless developed strong preferences for gender-typical toys.

For my own children, my eldest daughter was showered with "girly" gifts and plays with none of them. She likes toys that make funny noises and music, and have blinky lights. She has cerebral palsy and some autistic characteristics, so that may be a factor in her toy preferences. When she spends time in the hospital, people give her more dolls and stuffed toys. Aside from a brief stint with a Barbie doll she called "Darby," she hasn't liked any of them.

So our second child, a son, comes along. Since our first child did not like gender-typical toys, we assumed he would be the same. Not so. Despite living in a house full of girly toys, he too didn't like any of them. He gravitated to the few cars we had in the mix, and turned duplo blocks into guns, swords, robots, and cars. He was strongly influenced by his cousins, whom he sees around once per month.

When our third child, a daughter, came along, we had forgotten about how many girly toys we still had lying around the house, but she took to those like a moth to a flame. There are toys she plays with her brother: building toys, games, and balls. But when she plays by herself, she uses the stereotypical female toys. Her brother occasionally will play dolls with his sister, but when he plays by himself, it's with stereotypical male toys.

Now if a sociologist came into our house and studied toy preferences, she would see a parental bias. They would say our boy plays with cars because that's what we buy for him, and our youngest plays with dolls because that's what we buy for her. However, we know that we buy that way because that is their preference, not the other way around. The preferences came first and we only support them. Many parents who started out priding themselves on their political correctness uncomfortably find themselves in that position.

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Yes

According to a paper published in Hormones and Behavior by Janice M. Hassett, Erin R. Siebert, and Kim Wallen (citations elided):

Toy play is one of the most robust human behavioral sex differences, showing moderate to very large effect sizes. [Boys] interact more with masculine-type toys than do girls, and girls interact more with feminine-type toys than do boys. Within each sex, boys typically show strong preferences for stereotypically masculine toys, while girls often do not show a statistically greater preference for one toy type over another. Thus sex differences in toy preferences are characterized by stronger gender-specific preferences in boys than in girls.

Socialization does represent one hypothesis for this preference. If correct, it suggests that people in my twins' life influenced (perhaps incidentally) my son to chose balls, not dolls. But the study suggests another possibility:

In contrast to the socialization perspective this view posits that toy preferences reflect preferences for specific activities, such as active manipulation or cradling, facilitated by specific features of toys and that these activity biases result from the different prenatal hormonal environments of boys and girls. According to this perspective, boys’ and girls’ toy preferences reflect differences in their preference for specific activities and they thus seek out toys that facilitate those preferred activities. The “pink” and “blue” aisles in toy stores thus reflect marked gender preferences for activities and not necessarily societal imposition of gender norms on boys and girls. The socialization and activity bias viewpoints do not resolve the sex differences in the magnitude of the preference for gender specific toys. The more marked preference in boys than girls could reflect either that boys have stronger predispositions to a more limited set of activities, or alternatively that boys’ toy choices are more strongly socially constrained than are girls’ choices.

The study examined the activity preference hypothesis by testing the preferences of juvenile rhesus monkeys. They provided the group with the choice of one plush and one wheeled toy1 to play with for 25 minutes. As with studies of human children, males strongly prefered "boy's toys" and females showed no strong preference. Since these primates do not have strong sexual differentiation in socialization2, the authors propose that masculine toys accommodate masculine activity.

In our children, we can't eliminate social pressures, but the research suggests a biological explanation. Androgen has been shown to influence activity preferences: boys like rough and tumble play. Therefore boys will seek objects that afford that sort of activity. Confirming the connection, it's been shown that human girls with "elevated prenatal adrenal androgen secretion" also prefer masculine toys.

Now that my son has shown a preference for balls, my mother-in-law encourages him in his throwing activities. So, at least in my experience, socialization helps solidify preferences, but doesn't introduce them. Observations of my daughter suggest that she prefers quieter play, as a rule. We put plush toys in their cribs and invariably the boy tosses them over the edge and his sister will be clutching something (usually a blanket). So again, when socialization is removed from the equation, my twins turn out to have very stereotypical behavior.


  1. The seven plush toys were: Winnie-the-Pooh™, Raggedy-Ann™, a koala bear hand puppet, an armadillo, a teddy bear, Scooby-Doo™, and a turtle. The sizes ranged in length from about 14 cm to 73 cm. The six wheeled toys were: a wagon, a truck, a car, a construction vehicle, a shopping cart, and a dump truck. These ranged in length from 16 to 46 cm. Plush and wheeled toys varied considerably in shape and color as well.

  2. Monkeys live in a socially complex world with substantial maternal support, but differential maternal treatment of males and females is limited to maternal retrieval in response to infant distress and physical inspection of their infant’s genitals (Wallen, 2005). Sex differences in maternal treatment do not include preventing their male or female offspring from engaging in opposite-sex typed behavior or in encouraging them to interact with specific objects (Wallen, 2005).

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Nice! This might even be worthy of skeptics.stackexchange.com, don't you think? :) –  Shadow Wizard Jun 15 at 11:41

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