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Arts & Culture Series: Research Spotlight

Toy story: New study looks into how gender toy preferences have changed since the 80s

Study looked at 16 studies from 1980 to 2016 which analysed observations of children’s free selection of toys when aged between one and eight

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

A new study from City, University of London in collaboration with researchers from University College London and Glasgow Caledonian University has shown that boys’ and girls’ toy preferences develop differently over time, as it was seen that the time playing with male-typed toys increased as boys got older but the equivalent pattern was not found in girls.

Looking at 16 studies from 1980 to 2016 which analysed observations of children’s free selection of toys when aged between one and eight, the meta-analysis, which is published in the journal of Infant and Child Development, found that over that time period boys have typically played with ‘male-typed’ toys more than girls, and girls have always played more with ‘female-typed’ toys more than boys.

The study helps to explain some complex trends around gender toy preference, with the finding of significant differences in boys’ and girls’ toy preferences across a range of ages, different time periods, countries and settings indicating an innate influence on this behaviour.

It also highlights an effect which appears to be affected by developmental and social factors arising at different ages. The increase in boys’ play with male-typed toys indicates that stereotypical social effects may persist longer for boys or that they have a stronger biological predisposition for certain play styles.

From an early age, children typically choose to play with toys typed to their own gender. Over time, decades of study – starting in 1932 – has found evidence of sex differences in children’s toy preference using a variety of methods and social contexts.

Sex differences in children’s object preferences are likely to originate in biological differences which are subsequently influenced by cognitive development, but there are also suggestions that they may be due to social factors. In either case, the impact of society on such toy choice is likely to change as boys’ and girls’ brains develop and as they become aware of their own gender and the associated norms which apply in society.

Analysing systematic observations of children’s free selection of toys spanning several decades, the aim of the study was to estimate the effect of the social and cultural context of testing, child age, and methodologies where boys and girls are offered ‘gender-neutral’ as well as ‘gender-typed’ toys.

In order to identify variables that predict toy preference, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of observational studies of the free selection of toys by boys and girls aged between one and eight years.

Looking specifically at 16 studies (involving 787 boys and 813 girls) which met the inclusion criteria, the researchers found that girls play significantly less with ‘female-typed’ toys and ‘male-typed’ toys in more recent studies. This finding may indicate moves towards greater gender equality in Western societies; the included studies have typically and fairly consistently used dolls, cosmetics and kitchen equipment as ‘female-typed’ toys, the findings of this study indicate a possible effect of historical time on toy preference and also the potential for adverts to impact on children’s choices due to increased social pressures to play with toys specific to a particular gender.

They also found that boys played relatively less with ‘male-typed’ toys when ‘gender-neutral’ toys were included, and girls played relatively more with ‘male-typed’ toys when ‘gender-neutral’ toys are included.

Speaking about the findings, lead author Dr Brenda Todd, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at City, University of London, said:

“Our findings may indicate the different effects of innate preferences and of social experiences on boys’ and girls’ development as seen by the toys they choose to play with when given free choice.

“What we found is that boys get older we see increased play with toys typed to their gender. In addition, we saw that girls have started to play increasingly less with female-typed toys over more recent decades, which may possibly indicate moves towards greater gender equality in Western societies where most of the studies were conducted.

“After infancy, social influences from parents, peers, educators and the media are more accessible to children. As a result, the acquisition of a gendered identity and accumulation of knowledge about typical gendered behaviour in others may explain the increase in the magnitude of boys’ and girls’ free preference for toys typed to their own gender across this age period.

“However, as shown by our study, despite differences among individual boys’ and girls’ behaviour, children do overwhelmingly choose toys typed to their gender. Therefore, it is important that we ensure that toys which are attractive to each sex are not restrictive in the skills that they afford so that all children can learn from play and not miss out on the associated benefits for their development.”

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