When preschool teachers take a break to get snacks ready or prepare for the next activity, they usually let students engage in play for an hour or half hour-long chunk of time. In many preschools, children may simply head toward several bins full of toys or a kitchen playset.
Whether boys choose to play with blocks or girls choose to play with baby dolls may seem inconsequential. But the gendered nature of kids’ play activities may actually have serious consequences — depriving children from developing certain skills and preventing them from learning how to socialize across genders.
Young children learn gender norms quickly and tend to bring them into their school environment. Preschool play activities can end up reinforcing that. Unfortunately, preschool teachers may have no idea that gendered play is a problem and may not be aware of their own gender assumptions. A 2015 case study shows early childhood educators’ perceptions of gender end up affecting children’s play.
How children’s activities become divided by gender
When children play by themselves, they tend to choose activities that are stereotypically aligned with their gender, according to a 2012 article called “Children’s Gender-Typed Activity Choices Across Preschool Social Contexts.”
And when they play with other children, gender also affects how they play. In one 2013 study, researchers found that children tended to choose playmates of the same gender. When children do play with children of a different gender, the results are interesting. When boys and girls played together, girls played more “masculine” activities but boys’ activities stayed the same. Boys would play more feminine activities when interacting with teachers.
Priscilla Goble, one of the authors of the 2013 study, said it’s not clear why the girls played more masculine activities with the boys while the boys didn’t do the same with the girls. “Maybe it’s the case that if girls want to play with boys, or there is an opportunity to play with boys, it’s kind of around these masculine activities,” Goble suggested.
Boys may play more feminine activities with teachers both because preschool teachers are more likely to be women and because more academic activities — like readings and writing — are generally categorized as feminine.
Other research has found boys may significantly alter their play behavior if they’re playing only with girls. The 2014 book Gender Differences in Aspirations and Attainment: A Life Course Perspective conducted a study on how certain gendered activities became more or less prevalent over time depending on the gender of playmates. Block play, for example, decreased if a boy only played with girls. And for girls, rates of block play were highest when playing with boys but low when playing with only girls or playing alone.
Parents may think preschoolers are way too young to have already absorbed all of these messages about gender — but Goble said there is plenty of evidence that by the time kids enter preschool at age three or four, they’ve already been exposed to these messages through cultural influences, such as the highly gender-segregated toy shelves in department stores. Early childhood programs often do little if anything to combat these cultural influences.
Of course, some parents send these messages because they value gender roles. When Target announced it would get rid of signage that designated boys and girls toy sections, parents said they would boycott the store. Strangely, the same parents who argued it was biological for girls to gravitate toward “feminine” items and boys to gravitate toward “masculine” items thought a lack of explicit direction would cause children to choose activities outside of what they consider appropriate for their sex or gender.
But those parents probably don’t need to worry. As young as 3 years old, children have begun to develop their gender identity, according to the Handbook of Child Psychology, Theoretical Models of Human Development. And more often than not, children will be encouraged to subscribe to binary gender norms. Children’s behavior can become very closely associated with their gender very quickly, sometimes in a period of just a few months. For example, boys who play more frequently with other boys become more active, dominant, and aggressive.
Why children need to play outside of gender expectations
Research shows that different kinds of activities can lead to different kinds of development. For instance, activities that require building something, such as playing with blocks, can improve spatial skills, said Goble, Institute of Education Sciences Postdoctoral Research Associate.
The gulf between different types of gendered activities means that children are growing up in “two cultures,” according to Goble.
“So if girls are doing dramatic play or art activities or having conversations about their social relationships and boys are engaging in activities like block play and talking about the task rather than each other, throughout preschool they build skills that mean boys are more task-oriented and math-oriented and girls are more social-oriented and language-oriented,” Goble said.
Activities such as sewing and working with tools are important for children’s development, said Jacqueline Cossentino, Ed.D., senior associate and director of research for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.
“When we deny children those activities and those opportunities, we are denying executive function and the ability to develop social and emotional skills that first begin with concentration and then develop into respect and empathy,” Cossentino said. “When they’re three, four, and five, sewing is just fun, it’s developing fine motor coordination. It’s creating the ability to focus, to complete a task. These are really really important skills for building good brains.”
This can also affect social skills. Researchers who have studied the role of gender in early childhood education say that gender segregation in school can make cross-gender interactions more difficult as kids grow up. Children who develop skills for communicating that are highly separated by gender roles may have a harder time developing the necessary social skills to interact with people outside their gender later in life.
“That [gender segregation] permeates and by elementary school we see this exacerbate over time. We see these two cultures and they don’t really come together until adolescence and then we see this kind of clash,” Goble said. “And they don’t realize why it’s kind of difficult for young teens to understand each other, when they’ve never really communicated prior to that point.”
What preschool teachers can do to make a difference
Experts on preschool play and gender segregation say that the best solution may be to make the play period a little more structured.
Goble, who is currently conducting research on free play sessions, said that the problem can be addressed by setting up the classroom in a way that encourages kids to try new things. She suggested setting up four different centers in the classroom with activities related to one area — all focused on math activities, for example — and letting children choose between them. “That way all children are playing those activities,” she said.
Cossentino said some structure is helpful for very young children, although it should come from the classroom environment itself rather than the teacher. For example, in the Montessori classroom, some of the most typically gendered play — such as block play and dramatic play — is not included in the curriculum. Instead, activities are presented in a more gender-neutral way. Rather than playing with a fake kitchen, children learn how to cook for their peers; rather than dressing dolls, children learn to dress themselves.
“I think a pretend kitchen, a pretend dress-up area, a pretend train — there is a lot of that in unstructured play, but in fact they’re structured, because the materials themselves provide a structure and are on their own limiting what children can choose to interact with,” Cossentino said. “So the alternative to that is to have materials very carefully laid out on shelves that children have access to so they can make selections and interact with materials and put materials back.”
Parents and teachers can also resist re-enforcing gender roles by considering how they react to children who are operating outside of the expectations for what boys and girls should play with.
“It’s very common for parents to watch their sons sewing or wearing an apron and serving tea and being sort of surprised by that,” Cossentino said. “But I’ve rarely met a parent who wasn’t delighted by it.”