Are Sex Differences in Children’s Play Behavior Inevitable?








Are Sex Differences in Children’s Play Behavior Inevitable?

Peggy Carter

Institutional Affiliation


Are Sex Differences in Children’s Play Behavior Inevitable?

Society as a whole is beginning to embrace gender neutrality and many retailers and toy manufacturers are striving to market toys to all children rather than separating them into boys and girls toys. However, could this be a fruitless endeavor? What if color and toy preference is already predetermined? In this essay, we will explore whether it is nature or nurture that plays the biggest role in how a child plays.

Pink Vs Blue

One of the biggest debates when it comes to gender neutrality comes down to color. It is widely accepted by most people that pink is a girl’s color while blue is for boys. For a very long time, toy manufacturers have used this in product design and marketing. For example, a doll will almost always be female and dressed in a pink outfit. Even when attempts are made to make more inclusive toys color often comes into play. For example, in 2013 Nerf released a line of guns, crossbows and other weapons aimed at girls called Nerf Rebelle in shades of pink and purple (Busis, 2013).

However, it hasn’t always been the case that pink was for girls. In the early part of the 20th century, mothers were encouraged to dress their sons in pink and their daughters in blue (Curtis, 2011). The theory was that pink was a stronger, more masculine color while blue was more delicate and therefore more feminine.

It is also interesting to note that in study conducted by Jadva et al. (2010) from Cambridge University concluded that there is no color preference in children under the age of two years. Of the 120 toddlers participating, the majority were drawn to pinker tones and rounder shapes. This suggests that a preference for pink versus blue, or feminine versus masculine, is not inherent but rather comes from socialization and gender development.


Sex Differences in Play

It seems clear that gender differences in social roles, occupations and even earning power are not determined at birth. Parents, teachers, and society as a whole treats boys and girls differently. There are different expectations placed on men and women in society and encourages them to participate in different things. The same applies to how children play. For example, people often expect that a boy will play rough while a girl will not.

If we take a closer look at sex differences in play, there are 3 different aspects to take into consideration (Hines, 2004). These are toy choices, preferred play partners, and social play. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

If we start with toy choices, there is a strong indication based on both observational study and questionnaires that boys and girls tend to show preference for different types of toys. Girls will usually opt for dolls, cosmetics, dress-up costumes and household toys. In comparison, the average boy will choose vehicles and toy weapons like guns and swords. It is not completely clear at what age these preferences begin to emerge, but some parents say it begins as early as 12 months.

The second consideration is playmate preference, or more specifically the gender of playmates. Studies show that in both sexes, between 80% and 90% of children prefer playmates of the same sex. Girls like to play with girls and boys will choose to play with other boys. This could be a big contributing factor to the third aspect of sex differences in play – social play.

Boys have a stronger preference for rough play and playful aggression. They are more likely to engage in play fights, chases, wrestling and other forms of rough and tumble play. This preference means they will naturally choose playmates within their own gender who also enjoy these forms of social play. Overall, boys are more physically active than girls of the same age. This has been concluded not only from observational study, but through motion recorders which measure limb movement.


Psychological and Cognitive Sex Differences

It is also important to consider psychological sex differences. These are essential when it comes to determining core gender identity and sexual orientation. Most people have a core gender identity that aligns with their biological sex, but there are exceptions to this rule.

There are also cognitive differences that can be seen between the male and the female brain. These cognitive differences have an impact on specific abilities which is why it is often said that men and women have aptitude for different tasks. These cognitive differences are already present in childhood, but they increase with age.

It can be difficult to properly document this since children may not be able to perform the same tasks as an adult, so different tests have to be used to determine the differences. Some of the common areas tested include mental rotations, spatial perception and spatial visualization. This may not have a direct bearing on how children play based on their gender, but it does help to establish that there are proven psychological and cognitive differences in the brain which could in turn contribute to a predetermined style of play for boys versus girls.

In conclusion, although there is evidence to suggest that our brains have some say over preferences when it comes to play it would not be fair to say this was the only factor. The fact that play preferences for stereotypically male or female toys and styles of social play does not become apparent until children get older and the fact that the age this happens varies so widely, shows that there is some element of social influence from parents, teachers and society in general. There is something of a paradigm shift at present where a marked effort is being made by parents, caregivers and even the toy industry to remove gender labels from toys. If this continues and becomes more widespread, we could see a change in how children play that is unaffected by gender sometime in the future.



Busis, H. (2013, February 8). Hasbro launches ‘Rebelle’ Nerf line for girls. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from

Curtis, P. (2011, December 3) Pink v blue – are children born with gender preferences? The Guardian. Retrieved from

Jadva, V., Hines, M., & Golombok, S. (2010, March 16) Infants’ preferences for toys, colors, and shapes: sex differences and similarities. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(6), 1261-1273. Retrieved from

Hines M. (2004) Brain gender. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

* This sample essay is formatted according to APA Style. Please, take into account that the mobile version of the sample paper doesn’t reflect all the requirements of APA Style, such as margins, indents, the size of the page, running heads and footnotes.
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