Sex Roles, Vol. 51, Nos. 7/8, October 2004 (
The Variability and Flexibility of Gender-Typed Toy Play:
A Close Look at Children’s Behavioral Responses to
Vanessa A. Green,
and Di Catherwood
Gender differences in play behavior are well documented. However, little work has exam-
ined the issue of variability of gender-typed behaviors within individuals or within genders.
We investigated whether children’s gender-typed toy play behavior is (a) variable across time
within individuals, and (b) variable in response to exposure to counterstereotypic models.
Extensive observations (N = 203) were made of 8 highly gender-typed preschool children
over 4 months. Variability was assessed by examining changes in the percentage of masculine
and feminine toy play across successive days in which (a) gender neutral stories were read
(within-individual variability) and (b) gender counterstereotypic stories were introduced (en-
vironmental variability). Variability of gender-typed play within individuals and in response
to environmental stimuli was found among girls, but not among boys.
KEY WORDS: play; gender differences; intervention.
Gender differences in toy play have been docu-
mented among children in the ﬁrst years of life. Many
studies indicate that, by age 3, children prefer to play
with toys deemed appropriate for their own gender
(Blakemore, LaRue, & Olejnik, 1979; Downs, 1983;
Eisenberg-Berg, Boothby, & Matson, 1979; O’Brien
& Huston, 1985; O’Brien, Huston, & Risley, 1983;
Smetana & Letourneau, 1984). Gender differences in
toy play and other behaviors are of interest to psy-
chologists for many reasons. First, these early behav-
iors may be precursors of later behaviors, including
adult social and occupational roles. For example,
children’s play with masculine toys has been hy-
pothesized to affect the development of spatial skills
A preliminary version of this manuscript was presented at the
2003 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child De-
velopment, Tampa, Florida.
University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.
University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, United Kingdom.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Depart-
ment of Educational Psychology, D5800, University of Texas
at Austin, 1 University Station, Austin, Texas 78712; e-mail:
and interests (Linn & Peterson, 1985; Signorella,
Jamison, & Krupa, 1989).
Second, causal explanations for gender differ-
ences such as those seen in the toy play of young
children confront a core goal of psychology: under-
standing the interplay of biology and environment in
development. The “nature versus nurture” debate is
reﬂected in the three major families of theoretical ap-
proaches to understanding gender differentiation in
play and other domains: gender essentialist, gender
environmentalist, and gender constructivist (Liben &
Bigler, 2002). Gender essentialist explanations em-
phasize the role of innate biological differences in
shaping children’s play (Berenbaum & Hines, 1992;
Hines & Kaufman, 1994). For example, Alexander
and Hines (2002) have argued that preferences for
toy features (e.g., movement) have evolved from
differential selection pressures and shape sexually
dimorphic toy preferences in children. In contrast,
gender environmentalist explanations emphasize the
role of parents and peers in modeling and reinforcing
“gender appropriate” play (see Fagot & Leinbach,
1987; Leaper, 2002). Consistent with this perspective,
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