Girl toys, boy toys, and parenting: The science of toy preferences

Focused little girl playing with toy construction trucks in the sand

Yes, manufacturers market “girl toys” and “boy toys”. But are children’s interest in gender-typical toys entirely a matter of cultural training?

Parents with sons and daughters often see differences in the way their kids play. And research confirms it: Boys usually spend more time in “rough and tumble” play. Are boys more physical because we encourage them? Probably. In most cultures, the pattern is the same: People are more likely to train boys to be tough, strong, aggressive, and competitive (Low 1989).

But that doesn’t mean behavior is entirely determined by social factors. Child’s play is also influenced by prenatal development. In a study of fetal testosterone, researchers measured hormone levels in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. Then they tracked the children for several years after birth.

The results? Testosterone levels were higher in male fetuses, of course. But female fetuses were exposed to some testosterone, too. And fetal testosterone was linked with rough-and-tumble play. The higher the testosterone levels, the more likely the child was to exhibit “male-typical” behaviors (Auyeung et al 2009).

These findings are consistent with experiments on nonhuman animals. If you artificially boost male hormone levels in developing females, they engage in more male-typical play. If you artificially reduce male hormone levels in males, they engage in less male-typical play (Hines 2006).

So are preferences for “girl toys” and “boy toys” biologically determined?

No, it’s more complicated than that. Maybe the male preference for rough-and-tumble play can explain the way that kids play with their toys. But that doesn’t make the toys themselves intrinsically male or female.

Give a girl some plastic dinosaurs, and she might do several things–act out a drama, take the dinosaurs “foraging,” or treat the toys as pets. A boy might be more likely to stage dinosaur battles. Perhaps it’s not the toys that define male-typical play, but what boys do with their toys.

And there is another interesting point. In studies that have tested the toy preferences of Western children, boys and girls weren’t equally attracted to gender-typical toys. Whereas most boys had strong preferences for gender-typical toys, girls did not.

Thus, whether or not boys are predisposed to prefer “boy toys,” there is no reason to think that girls are predisposed to reject toys that are stereotypically male.

Here’s an example.

Study: Most young boys wanted “male” toys…even if the parents weren’t pushing them. But little girls? They didn’t show preferences for “gendered” toys.

In a study of American preschoolers (ages 2 to 5), Clyde Robinson and James Morris asked parents what their children had gotten for Christmas. Some gifts had been requested by the kids themselves. Other gifts were chosen solely by the parents.

As it turns out, the toys the kids requested for themselves were more likely to be gender-stereotyped (e.g., boys asked for “masculine” toys). When parents chose the toys, they tended to give gender-neutral gifts, like art supplies, musical instruments, and educational toys (Robinson and Morris 1986).

Not terribly surprising, right? But here’s the kicker. In the Robinson and Morris study, it was mostly the boys who were requesting gender-stereotyped toys. At every age, about 75% of their requests were for “boy toys.” But girls didn’t show a similar preference for gender-stereotyped toys until they were 5 years old.

This asymmetry has been documented in many studies (Berenbaum and Hines 1992; Carter and Levy 1988; Eisenberg and Wolchik 1985; Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg 1963. Boys show strong preferences for stereotypically male toys. Girls tend to demonstrate more ecletic preferences, showing interest in both dolls and vehicles. The only exception I’ve found is a study that examined the toy preferences in infants (Alexander and Saenz 2012).

Why the difference? Some researchers have suggested that boys show a stronger sex bias than girls do because boys get more criticism for crossing the toy gender line. Kids of both sexes are encouraged to play with “gender-typical” toys. But boys may be more strongly stigmatized for playing in gender atypical ways (Kane 2006).

That sounds right to me. Surely culture and social pressures have a huge impact on what children think is an acceptable toy. But I also wonder if hormones–and the brain differences caused by hormones–play a role in toy preferences.

That idea is consistent with a recent study of testosterone (T) levels in toddlers. Researchers in Finland tracked T levels in 48 newborns for 6 months, and then tested the children’s toy preferences when they were 14 months old. Girls were more likely to play with toy trains if they had exhibited higher T levels as infants. Boys with lower T levels were more likely to play with dolls (Lamminmäki et al 2012).

Intriguing? Certainly. But the most fascinating evidence may come from studies of nonhuman primates. Monkeys aren’t exposed to cultural messages about what toys they should play with. And yet they show sex-biased patterns. In one experiment, Janice Hassett and her colleagues presented male and female rhesus monkeys with a choice of toys–wheeled vehicles vs. plush toys. The male monkeys showed a strong and consistent preference for the wheeled toys. The female monkeys showed no strong preference either way (Hassett et al 2008).

In another experiment on vervet monkeys, Gerianne Alexander and Melissa Hines presented monkeys with a series of different toys. The researchers didn’t test toy preferences directly, because monkeys only saw one toy at a time. But Alexander and Hines did find that females were more likely to pick up dolls than were males. And the male monkeys were more likely than females to handle toy cars (Alexander and Hines 2002).

Are these experiments the last word on sex-biased toy preferences? Of course not. But they do suggest that sex-based preferences can arise in the absence of human cultural influences. It seems unlikely that social pressures can explain why male monkeys prefer toys with wheels.

Of course, this begs the question. What is intrinsically male about a toy truck–something that wasn’t even invented until the 20th century? We’re a long way from answering that rather imponderable question. But there are some hints.

For instance, there is some evidence that males tend to prefer looking at mechanical motion rather than biological motion. In one experiment, researchers presented 12-month old babies with videos of cars and faces. Male babies looked longer at images of moving cars. Girl babies looked longer at videos of moving faces (Lutchmaya and Baron-Cohen 2002).

And, as noted by Christina Williams and Kristen Pleil–who conducted their own toy experiments–toy trucks have interesting apertures to investigate, and may lend themselves to certain kinds of mechanical exploration that simply don’t apply to most soft toys or dolls (Williams and Pleil 2009).

So maybe toy trucks–which exhibit internal motion and have intriguing surfaces to explore–are more appealing to individuals interested in mechanically-oriented play (Williams and Pleil 2009).

Toys that get noticed

Another idea that occurs to me is that toy vehicles are relatively noisy, disruptive toys. Push a doll, and it doesn’t travel far, nor does it make noise. By contrast, you can really raise a ruckus–and get attention–with a toy truck.

The “ruckus” factor may be relevant because loud noises and commotion are key ingredients in many nonhuman primate dominance displays. Perhaps the most famous case was Mike, a smart chimpanzee who rose to power in Gombe National Park by inventing new, intimidating dominance displays. Mike took old gasoline cans (borrowed from Jane Goodall’s camp) and made tremendous commotion—throwing, slapping, and rolling the cans along the ground.

Perhaps, then, natural selection has favored males who seek out and tinker with objects that can make a ruckus. But whatever explains the male preference for mechanical play, we should consider: Mechanical play hones spatial skills, and spatial skills are key for success in a variety of fields, including art, architecture, engineering, and the physical sciences.

And while it’s likely that doll play has its own benefits, highly-sexualized dolls may teach girls to value themselves primarily for their physical appearance – not a promising recipe for intellectual development.

So there are good reasons to counter the cultural pressures that push kids into sex-stereotyped play. To read more about the links between play and spatial skills, see my article, “Spatial intelligence in children: Why training matters.” You can also check out my evidence-based activities for improving spatial skills in kids.

For more information about the harmful effects of sexualizing childhood, see my article, “The sexualization of girls: Is the popular culture harming our kids?”

References: Girl toys, boy toys, and parenting

Alexander G and Hines M. 2002. Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus) Evolution and Human Behavior 23(6): 467-479.

Alexander GM and Saenz J. 2012. Early androgens, activity levels and toy choices of children in the second year of life. Horm Behav. 2012 Sep;62(4):500-4

Auyeaung B, Baron-Cohen S, Ashwin E, Knickmeyer R, et al. 2009. Fetal testosterone predicts sexually differentiated childhood behavior in girls and boys. Psychological Science 20(2): 144-148.

Berenbaum SA and Hines M. 1992. Early androgens are related to childhood sex-typed toy preferences. Psychological Science 3:203-206.

Carter DB and Levy GD. 1988. Cognitive aspects of early sex-role development: the influence of gender schemas on preschoolers’ memories and preferences for sex-typed toys and activities. Child Development 59: 782-792.

Eisenberg N aqnd Wolchik SA. 1985. Parental socialization of young childrens’ play: A short-term longitudinal study. Child Development 56: 1506-1513.

Hines M. 2006. Prenatal testosterone and gender-related behavior. European Journal of Endocrinology 115: S115-S121.

Lamminmäki A, Hines M, Kuiri-Hänninen T, Kilpeläinen L, Dunkel L, and Sankilampi U. 2012. Testosterone measured in infancy predicts subsequent sex-typed behavior in boys and in girls. Horm Behav. 61(4):611-6

Low B. 1989. Cross-cultural patterns in the training of children: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Comparative Psychology. 103(4): 311-319.

Lutchmaya S and Baron-Cohen S. 2002. Human sex differences in social and non-social looking preferences, at 12 months of age. Infant Behavior and Development 25(3): 319-325

Kane EW. No way my boys are going to be like that! Gender and Society. 2006;20:149–176.

Robinson CC and Morris JT. 1986. The gender-stereotyped nature of christmas toys received by 36-, 48-, and 60-month-old children: A comparison between nonrequested vs requested toys. Sex Roles 15: 21-32.

Sutton-Smith B and Rosenberg BG. 1963. Development of sex differences in play choices during preadolescence. Child Development 34: 199-126.

Williams CL and Pleil KE. 2008. Toy story: Why do monkey and human males prefer trucks? Comment on “Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children by Hassett, Siebert and Wallen.” Horm Behav 54(3): 335-358.

Written content of “Boy toys, girl toys and parenting” last modified 11/12

image of little girl playing with trucks in the sand by Ruslan Galiullin / shutterstock