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The consequences of nature vs nurture

rokojo's picture

My mom always said that there was a clear difference in the way my brother played and in the way my sister and I played. As girls, she said we always prefered playing with dolls and stuffed animals while my brother prefered robot and car figures. She also said the way we played with the same toys was different, my brother being rougher on his toys than we were. However, I do remember that my brother loved to play on, something my sister and I teased him mercilessly for. There currently exists a large market for gendered toys, with very strong advertising enforcing the rules of who can play with what. Because of this, it’s possible to argue that our exposure to media and advertising shape these differences in how we play. However, there have been studies done on monkeys that show that they experience gendered play in a similar way to humans. This shows that perhaps there is a biological reason toys are gendered today.

In the study of monkeys, scientists gave monkeys a large set of toys with two categories, more feminine “plush” toys, and more masculine “wheeled” toys. They placed each monkey in an enclosure with both a plush toy or a wheeled one. They took data on which toys the monkeys played with, how long they played, and how they played. They then compared these results with studies previously done on human infants. The conclusion they came to was; “Mirroring the marked sex difference in infant interactions and children's toy preferences, male monkeys interacted significantly less with plush toys than did female monkeys” (Hassett, Siebert, and Wallen [Page 362]). These scientists are arguing that differences in toy preference is innate. It is biologically and evolutionarily established. They also offer an argument for how this finding relates to the gendered marketing of toys.

“We offer the hypothesis that there are hormonally organized preferences for specific activities that shape preference for toys that facilitate these activities. Human toys capitalize on sex differences in preferred activities, creating a gendered toy market. Thus, in addition to adults socializing children's toy preferences, children may socialize adults to provide toys facilitating their preferred activities. ” (Hassett, Siebert, and Wallen [Page 363]).


This argument blames the way toys are marketed on the biological preferences of children. It excuses and even supports the way that the gender binary is reinforced most strongly in childrens toys. It fails to consider the many children that fall outside the norm of toy preference who can be damaged by the argument that boys and girls inherently play differently. This argument reinforces the idea that those who have different preferences for play are “unnatural”.

How does this standard effect children who differ from the norm? Hadea tells a story of how gendered expectations of play in society were harmful to her childhood. She describes how much she loved to play outside with the boys in her neighborhood and how much her mom pushed back, trying to force her into more “girly” activities. She says,

“After a while of (my mom) constantly trying to make me more girly and barbie-like, I finally began to think that maybe something was wrong with me. Why is it that I wanted to play outside and the other girls that I was friends with in my neighborhood wanted to go paint each other's nails? My play time started to seem less playful/enjoyable and more shameful. I began to feel ashamed at that fact that I didn't want to play with barbies.” (Hgraves)

As a girl, Hadea was expected to play a certain way. There is a norm for how girls and boys are supposed to play. However, she didn’t fit into this norm. She didn’t enjoy playing with the toys she was “supposed to”. There are many children like her who don’t either. The concept that different genders play differently is a harmful generalization. She was made to feel lesser for not playing the way other girls did. She later mentioned this limitation on her play negatively affected her social skills later in life. She says,

“When I see my younger brother who is told everyday to go outside and play with his friends, while I was encouraged to stay inside and play with dolls...I compare our adaptabilty level, how easy it is for the both of us to make friends,  and how likeable we are. In 2 out of 3 of these areas I see he flourishes more than I do. The limitations that were placed upon me just because I am a female have stunted my social growth and skills in some way.” (Hgraves).

Hadea’s experience shows the negative effects of gendered play. While different genders overall may play differently, the marking certain toys and types of play as “off limits” based on gender can be detrimental to the development and happiness of young children. Although companies profit from unnecessarily gendering products, the effects can be extremely damaging. Girls and boys may play in different ways overall, but segregating toys and types of play is an unnecessarily harmful act.


Hassett, Janice M., Erin R. Siebert, and Kim Wallen. "Sex Differences in Rhesus

    Monkey Toy Preferences Parallel Those of Children." Hormones and Behavior

    54.3: 359-64. Science Direct. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.