Infants prefer toys typed to their gender, says study

Children as young as 9 months-old prefer to play with toys specific to their own gender, according to a new study from academics at City University London and UCL.

The paper, which is published in the journal of Infant and Child Development, shows that in a familiar nursery environment significant sex differences were evident at an earlier age than gendered identity is usually demonstrated.

The research therefore suggests the possibility that boys and girls follow different developmental trajectories with respect to selection of gender-typed toys and that there is both a biological and a developmental-environmental components to the sex differences seen in object preferences.

To investigate the gender preferences seen with toys, the researchers observed the toy preferences of boys and girls engaged in independent play in UK nurseries, without the presence of a parent. The toys used in the study were a doll, a pink teddy bear and a cooking pot for girls, while for boys a car, a blue teddy, a digger and a ball were used.

The 101 boys and girls fell into three age groups: 9 to 17 months, when infants can first demonstrate toy preferences in independent play (N=40); 18 to 23 months, when critical advances in gender knowledge occur (N=29); and 24 to 32 months, when knowledge becomes further established (N=32).

Stereotypical toy preferences were found for boys and girls in each of the age groups, demonstrating that sex differences in toy preference appear early in development. Both boys and girls showed a trend for an increasing preference with age for toys stereotyped for boys.

Speaking about the study, Dr Brenda Todd, a senior lecturer in psychology at City University said:

“Sex differences in play and toy choice are of interest in relation to child care, educational practice and developmental theory. Historically there has been uncertainty about the origins of boys’ and girls’ preferences for play with toys typed to their own sex and the developmental processes that underlie this behaviour. As a result we set out to find out whether a preference occurs and at what age it develops.

“Biological differences give boys an aptitude for mental rotation and more interest and ability in spatial processing, while girls are more interested in looking at faces and better at fine motor skills and manipulating objects. When we studied toy preference in a familiar nursery setting with parents absent, the differences we saw were consistent with these aptitudes.   Although there was variability between individual children, we found that, in general, boys played with male-typed toys more than female-typed toys and girls played with female-typed toys more than male-typed toys.

“Our results show that there are significant sex differences across all three age groups, with the finding that children in the youngest group, who were aged between 9–17 months when infants are able to crawl or walk and therefore make independent selections,  being particularly interesting; the ball was a favourite choice for the youngest boys and the youngest girls favoured the cooking pot.”

18 Comments

  1. Barbara Gribbon on

    A child of 9months can have no idea of the social significance of blue versus pink unless it is enforced by society; snap for a pot, unless we’re making some weird statement about its form. To baldly state girls or boys prefer societies ways of gendering objects without even musing as to why seems disingenuous.

  2. Oh of course the color choice is gendered, there’s no possible way it could just be that that’s the color the child has seen more often and as such is more familiar with. Let’s be ready if you put two toys in front of a young child, one they are familiar with and one they have never seen before, a majority of the time they will grab the familiar toy first. Why, because the have positive feelings towards that toy. Similarly if you place the child’s parent and a stranger in the room, the child will pick the parent.

    • Please read the study before commenting ignorantly: the babies did not actually have a color preference, suggesting that color preference is socialized by that doll vs. truck preference is not. They used the color as a control condition, essentially.

        • All children were exposed to all toys. If children prefer pink and blue at the same rate across genders it suggest pink and blue do not have an underlying gendered value, which is obvious.

      • If you had bothered to read my entire comment you would know that I pointed out that children responded to what they were familar with. Color was not mentioned past the first sentence. Like you said, it smart to read the whole thing before making ignorant comments.

        • Yes, I read your entire ridiculous comment. Again, if you read the study, you would see that children cared for pink and blue at statistically indistinguishable rates which utterly invalidates your concern about familiarity. Thank goodness you were not the scientist writing this paper.

          • The point I made had nothing to do with color beyond the first sentence. The point was that if a child is only every given trucks to play with, they will when given the choice chosen a truck. This applies to all toys, regardless of color, shape, or size.

            Now as for the color, if a child is constantly told that this color only applies to a certain gender, then that child will believe it. If you don’t believe that I suggest you review the methods used to teach children at schools. From ABCs to Algebra, students are taught to memorize certain facts through repetition. Unfortunately, as you have aptly demonstrated, they often don’t teach critical thinking or how to apply the concept and expand upon it.

          • Let me repeat myself: boys and girls preferred the pink and blue teddy *statistically indistinguishable* rates. Let me translate that into “idiot”: the children did not care about color.

            This suggests that they were not socialized to prefer a color yet.

          • con·flate
            verb
            gerund or present participle: conflating
            combine (two or more texts, ideas, etc.) into one.
            “the urban crisis conflates a number of different economic and social issues”

            I think you meant confusing, and no I’m not. There’s nothing polite about you. Like many others you seem to believe that the best way to prove your point is to keep repeating the same thing and adding childish insults. As a result I’m sure, in your mind, you win many of these arguments. I’m sure you’ll feel the same way here, but like the old horse and water, I’m abandoning the reins in the hope that eventually you’ll realise that stubbornness only hurts yourself.

          • No, I meant conflating. Please reread the definition you posted: it’s an extremely simple concept; critical thinking and politeness are totally different concepts. You are confusing them for each other, specifically by conflating them (into one concept).

            If boys and girls did not select pink or blue teddys at different rates, then one cannot say, as you did, that “Oh of course the color choice is gendered, there’s no possible way it could just be that that’s the color the child has seen more often and as such is more familiar with.”

            Your entire point is that the color choice was gendered, yet the study was designed specifically to handle this objection. Please read the study and see Table 1. The Mann-Whitney test score demonstrates this point straightforwardly.

  3. What effect did their home life have on the children? How many of the children were only children thus limiting their at home toy selection to gendered toys and making them familiar to them?

    I personally believe gender identity and to a point gender expression are hard wired. Sometimes in that hard wiring process boys will be wired as girls and vice versa.

  4. Robyn Gibson on

    Great post, thanks for the info! In my experience of almost 30 years as a mom of one boy and two girls, the research is spot on.

  5. The responses will be identical to one I encountered back in the 70s. I read a study of the activity levels of newborns from 4 American born groups: Black, White, Navajo, and Chinese. The black and white babies showed high activity, the Navajo and Chinese low activity. I mentioned it to a person I identified as liberal, who arrogantly informed me that the differences were due to cultural teachings. No doubt he thought the study’s purpose was “RACIST”, just as his ilk will denounce this one as “SEXIST”.