Do boys and girls play differently?

Child psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson reveals some surprising evidence on why boys like playing with cars and girls like playing with dolls

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It may sound like stereotyping, but many parents notice dramatic differences between girls and boys. Is your little boy fixated by anything with wheels while his sister couldn’t care less about trucks and cars? Does your little girl play quietly with her friends while her brother and his friends crash around the house like a herd of baby elephants? So, is it down to nature or nurture?

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Are there boy toys and girl toys?

Girls and boys may actually be born with a preference for dolls or cars, according to one experiment with male and female monkeys in 2002, when psychologists Dr Gerianne Alexander and Professor Melissa Hines discovered that male vervet monkeys preferred playing with a car and a ball rather than a doll and a pot. Female monkeys showed the opposite preferences, but the male and female monkeys both spent around the same amount of time playing with ‘gender neutral’ toys, such as a book and a toy dog.

“Our findings suggest that what defines ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ is not dictated by society but may be due to visual cues that attract boys and girls in different ways,” says Dr Alexander. Her theory is that males may have evolved an attraction to objects that encourage movement and activity because they offer opportunities for rough, active play. This could be related to the needs and activities of early man, such as hunting for food and finding a mate.

“When Will was a baby, he played with Caitlin’s toys and we didn’t have any boyish toys, such as trucks or trains, in the house,” says Sandy, 31, mum to Caitlin, 4, and Will, 3. “Then, when Will was 8 months, we went to a friend’s house where there were two boys, and Will was beside himself when he spotted a box full of cars! Somehow he seemed naturally drawn to toys with wheels – and they’re still his favourites now.”

“Since turning 2, Fin has gravitated towards boys’ things. He’s Lego-mad, plus he has a boxful of cars. Lola, though, gets bored with Lego, preferring to play with her dolls, and when Fin’s at pre-school she plays quiet make-believe games,” says Nikki, 37, mum to Fin, 4, and Lola, 2.

“Lola plays on our emotions, and is very dramatic when we tell her off, but Fin just gets upset then gets over it. He’s more noisy and competitive, too, always having to be the first out of the bath!”

Do boys and girls prefer different colours?

Whether your newborn wears a pink, blue or white babygrow is down to you as a parent.

But, by the age of 3 or 4 years, gender differences in colour preferences are firmly established, with more girls wearing clothes that are coloured pink or pale yellow and boys tending to prefer darker colours.

“I deliberately avoided dressing Amber in pink when she was a baby,” says Alison, 34, mum to Amber, 5. “But once she started nursery, pink was the only colour she wanted to wear.”

Some scientific evidence suggests gender differences exist in the make-up of our eyes, which may mean female babies are actually more sensitive to pinks, reds and yellow.

Another theory is that a natural preference for pink might have developed in females over time for survival purposes. Dr Anya Hurlbert, who led a study at the University of Newcastle, found that women in their 20s prefer reddish colours. “Evolution may have driven females to prefer reddish colours – reddish fruits and healthy, reddish faces,” she suggests.

The different ways boys and girls play

As well as preferring different toys, boys and girls play differently, too. Boys often enjoy rough-and-tumble, while girls are quicker at learning to co-operate and opt for less competitive activities involving mutual support.

“Studies show that when children play with big plastic cars, more little boys play the ramming game,” says Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University, in his research into the difference between male and female brains. “Boys deliberately drive their cars into another child. Little girls ride around more carefully, avoiding each other.”

Professor Baron-Cohen proposes that ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains are wired differently, with ‘female’ brains being more predisposed to empathy (making them more sensitive to others – and therefore less likely to crash into them!) and ‘male’ brains being wired for are the main influences on toddlers’ colour choice.

However, warns Professor Baron-Cohen, these ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain characteristics can’t be assumed to apply to all individual boys or girls.

Taking risks – is it down to gender or personality?

Boys are often perceived as being more risk-taking than girls. There’s some evidence to suggest this continues as children grow into adulthood.

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Studies have revealed that taking risks is more linked to personality than gender, with about 60% of all infants being attracted by risk-taking and 40% being naturally more cautious. So, why is risky behaviour seen more in boys? The answer may lie with parents, who are more likely to tolerate adventurous behaviour from boys than from girls, thereby influencing their tot’s openness to risk-taking as they grow up.

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