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How is gender-stereotyped play affecting children’s learning?

8 min read
Despite a shift towards gender equality for adults, the gender stereotyped play of children persists

Choosing to engage in gender-stereotyped play is one of the earliest expressions of sex role development in young children – studies have claimed that children as young as 18 months old show gender stereotyped toy preferences and play choices (Bee, 1997; Caldera, Huston & O’Brien, 1989). But why does this occur?

Despite men and women’s roles changing rapidly in many societies, the gender stereotyped play of children has not evolved to reflect these changes. In fact, the definition of appropriate play and behaviour for boys is thought to have narrowed in recent decades (Freeman, 2007).

Is this something that we should be challenging in schools or encouraging parents to reconsider at home? Does gender-stereotyped play impact on children’s learning and emotional wellbeing?

In order to consider these questions, this article contrasts social learning theory (SLT), which emphasise modelling and reinforcement as the key mechanisms for gender typical behaviour, with Bio-psychological theories, which claim that play differences are innate and a consequence of hormonal or evolutionary differences between the sexes.

The evidence for both theories is also critically evaluated, and in doing so, this article provides an example of how teachers might both use, and scrutinise, research to inform their practice.

Social learning theory (SLT)

According to SLT, (Bandura, 1977) gender stereotyped play is learnt in the same way as any other socialised behaviour. The child observes and imitates adults behaving in ‘sex appropriate’ ways and is rewarded for playing in a sex-typed way.

Adult interactions

Many studies have confirmed that parents respond more positively when children join in traditionally gender appropriate activities or play with gender stereotyped toys. Most parents have sex stereotyped toys in their homes and expect their children to prefer them (Caldera, Huston & O’Brien,1989).

Studies, such as the ‘Baby X’ experiments (Seavey, Katz & Zalk, 1977), illustrate the different ways adults respond to boys and girls even from their first interactions. In this study, adults were presented with a 3-month-old infant labelled as either a boy or a girl. The adult’s selection of toys – and their interactions with the infant – were observed and measured. When the infant was introduced as a girl there was a stronger tendency for both men and women to select sex stereotyped toys for the child. When asked to guess the gender of the infant, participants justified their guesses using stereotyped cues, such as softness or strength. These studies suggest that play differences between boys and girls may well be influenced by adult’s stereotyped ideas rather than any biological differences.

However, many of the toy choice experiments, which show that infants have a preference for gender stereotyped toys and that parents reinforce these preferences, were conducted in laboratories and some used pictures of toys which is not predictive of natural play (O’Brien & Huston, 1985).  Furthermore, the differing qualities of the toys was not isolated, making it difficult to tell whether children are truly making gendered choices or just prefer certain colours, textures and shapes over others (Perry & Bussey, 1979). Small sample sizes created limitations for statistical analysis in some studies, whilst others contained predominantly white, middle class American participants, meaning results may not be valid across cultures. Caution should also be taken when using older research to draw conclusions about children in today’s society; this is especially true in areas where research is expanding or changing rapidly.

Parental modelling

Despite these issues, there is still evidence in support of social learning theories. More recent research has shown that children whose mothers work outside the home have less stereotyped views of gender, as do children raised predominantly by their fathers (Bee, 1997), which supports the notion of parental modelling.

Evidence of modelling also comes from laboratory experiments showing that children imitate sex typed behaviour after seeing videos of adults playing in traditionally masculine and feminine ways (Barkley et al, 1977). Even so, SLT fails to explain why some children are more stereotyped than their parents or why some boys show a preference for stereotypically feminine play despite no evidence of models or reinforcement for this behaviour (Bee, 1997). Moreover, placing too much emphasis on modelling and reinforcement contradicts established constructivist theories about child development by positioning the child as a passive recipient.

Gender schema theory

Gender schema theory (Bem, 1981) addresses this issue. A schema is a cognitive framework which helps us organise and interpret information. Gender schema theory explains how children actively construct gender with a schema which organises past experiences and provides a way of categorising and understanding future information about gender. The gender schema begins to develop as soon as the child has a concept of gender identity and evolves over time. As the gender schema develops and elaborates, an older child is able to be more flexible with the ‘gender rules’.

The idea that sex typing is a result of gender schematic processing is supported by empirical evidence including word-recall tests, which demonstrate that sex typed individuals show more clustering of gender relevant information, and self-description tests which reveal that sex typing is linked to a readiness to process information about the self in terms of the gender schema (Bem, 1981).

Bio-psychological theory

Evidence for biological differences has been found in studies carried out in non-human primates and individuals exposed to elevated hormone levels during foetal development.

Some of the earliest studies examined rough and tumble play levels in children, chimps and orang-utans (Jarvis, 2006). Higher levels of rough play correlated with higher testosterone levels. Studies using rats and non-human primates also showed high testosterone levels led to an increase in ‘male typical’ behaviour in offspring (Hines, 2006).

Alongside this possible hormonal cause, an experiment completed using vervet monkeys, showed differences existed in toy preferences based on sex alone. Male monkeys showed increased contact time with toys preferred by boys, whilst female monkeys showed similar results in toys favoured by girls.  The authors suggest that sex differences in toy choice may be the result of a series of selection pressures to favour certain object features, rather than being a learnt trait, as the monkeys had no prior learning cues (Alexandera & Hines, 2002).

Work completed on humans also shows similar results. Abnormal hormone levels have been studied in females suffering from congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). This condition is associated with elevated prenatal testosterone levels; girls with CAH show increased preference for toys normally preferred by boys (Hines, Constantinescu & Spencer, 2015).

Whilst non-human primates are evolutionarily our closest relatives, there are fundamental differences in our brains and neural development, so care should be taken when projecting conclusions about their behaviour onto humans.

Furthermore, work on humans with differing hormonal levels is limited, due to it being unethical to carry out experiments on them. This means studies may have restricted participant numbers due to the small incidence of the genetic condition, and lack control groups – key features in a comprehensive experimental design.

What are the implications for teaching practice?

The nature/nurture debate is one of the oldest in psychology. Although it is now well established that development is neither entirely governed by experiences or biology, but is an interaction of both, debates continue about the relative importance of each.

In looking critically at both social learning and bio-psychological theories, we can identify the extent to which gender stereotyped play choices can be altered. This is an important area to explore when considering equality of access and opportunity for both sexes.

Gender stereotypes exclude

Research has suggested that androgeny is linked to giftedness and creativity in children and also to psychological wellbeing (Silverman, 1993; Tolan 1997), which implies that we should discourage gender stereotypes and narrow gender differences. This has implications for parenting and educational settings as well as policies relating to stereotyping in children’s books and television, and genderised marketing which is more pervasive than ever (Russel and Tyler, 1992). Some shops have already responded to this by removing gender labelling from their toy departments (Weisgram, Fulcher & Dinella, 2014).

In a longitudinal nursery school observation (Martin, 2011) boys were seen to dominate construction and outdoor areas whilst girls dominated role play and writing areas. Children actively controlled access to these zones, challenging children who attempted to cross the gender divide.  These exclusionary practices can prevent children from accessing certain forms of learning. Many early years settings follow Piaget’s principles of not intervening in free play, however this could raise equality issues as it doesn’t enable teachers to challenge gender segregated play and encourage children to cross boundaries.

Academic achievement gap

In all 64 countries in an OECD study, girls were found to outperform boys academically (The Economist, 2016). Research has shown that feminine toys elicit more teaching, praise and questions from parents than masculine toys (O’Brien & Huston, 1985), which could be linked to later academic success.

There is an increasing amount of literature about boy’s achievement and how teachers can engage boys specifically by recognising the ways in which they differ from girls. Whether this creates a false dichotomy or simply makes good sense will depend on whether you believe differences in boys and girls learning preferences have a biological basis or are socially constructed.

According to gender schema theory, it should be possible to change the basis of gender schemas, replacing stereotyped behaviours with more integrated practices by modelling gender equality.

Gender neutrality

In the ‘gender neutral’ Egalia preschool in Sweden, staff do not use the pronouns ‘him’ and ‘her’ and actively discourage the boy/girl dichotomy. The approach has drawn both support and criticism from child psychologists (Hebblethwaite, 2011). There have also been several attempts at gender neutral parenting (Peck, 2014) which demonstrate the wide reaching influence of gender research and theory.

Gender is without a doubt an area which is becoming increasingly relevant for anyone working with young people. Gender clinics have experienced a rapid increase in referrals for children and adolescents in recent years. The Tavistock clinic saw an increase of 100% from 2015-16 with 1,398 referrals in 2016 (The Guardian, 2016). It is challenging for research to keep up with the demand.

Development and opportunities

If bio-psychological theories are correct and differences in boys’ and girls’ play choices are unavoidable, then current school policies, which ban on rough and tumble and weapon play, may need to be revisited as they may hinder learning by preventing boys from playing in the ways which are most natural to them. There is now a significant amount of research into this type of stereotypically ‘masculine’ play, which asserts that it is not linked to aggression and is developmentally important for children to engage in (Holland, 2003).

Finally, there is a well documented lack of women in STEM fields. One implication for toy companies, parents and educators is whether giving girls more opportunities to explore these areas through play would have an impact on study and career choices in later life.

A great deal to think about

Regardless of whether you believe gender differences in play are learnt or innate, hopefully this article has illustrated the wide range of research which can be considered relevant to teachers’ daily practice. Exploring this research may lead us to reconsider our preconceptions or values, and may stimulate an interesting discussion or debate with colleagues over current policies and practices. It may change what we do, or affirm that our current approach is already the right one for our setting and context.

To aid these reflections and discussions, this article has also aimed to highlight the importance of critically evaluating the research that we use in schools. It is important to take account of key considerations – such as sample sizes, experimental designs and whether studies are up to date with the most recent developments in the field – before making decisions based on research evidence.

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