The Girls' Play Project

Exploring the gender balance of play space use

Nature, nurture, and play — June 21, 2019

Nature, nurture, and play

Last week I shared an infographic that highlighted the impact of gender stereotyping on boys’ and girls’ play. I thought it might be useful to dig a little deeper into the underlying issue: the way that gender role socialisation influences our children’s development and experiences.

There are two opposing theories to explain why boys and girls tend to behave differently and show different play preferences. These can be described as biological determinism – the ‘nature’ side of the argument – and gender role socialisation – the ‘nurture’ counter-argument.

Biological determinism is the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally different as a result of gender and hormonal differences. Natasha Walter’s excellent book Living Dolls is a rich source of examples of how biological determinism is used to explain behavioural differences observed between males and females. She highlights an increased tendency by mainstream media to use biological determinism as the reason for gender differences, even to the point of amplifying or misconstruing minimal or non-existent data about biological sex differences. Walter interprets this as evidence of a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and pushing back against feminism.

Parents and educators often talk to and about their children in ways that reinforce biological determinism. Comments about how boys need to run around more than girls, or how boys all like to play in rough and tumble ways, portray a belief that boys and girls have fundamentally different attitudes and behaviour. Often it seems that people see how their children and their children’s friends behave, and extrapolate that out to represent all children of that gender – so, their son is very loud, and he tends to attract similarly boisterous friends, and therefore they conclude that all boys are very loud. The researcher GraniĆ© also writes about parents correlating a few children’s behaviour with some kind of proof of biological sex differences. Another common example of biological determinism is the belief in young boys having a testosterone surge that explains their restlessness and inability to listen – a theory that I debunked in an article for The Spinoff last year. Personally, I think that ‘all girls are xxx’ and ‘all boys are xxx’ statements represent a really lazy way to think about children – much less trouble than actually bothering to get to know individual children’s tastes and preferences! I challenge them whenever I hear them, and I’d really encourage others to do so as well.

In their book Children’s Play Scarlett, Naudeau, Salonius-Pasternak, and Ponte do suggest that biological factors may have something to do with children’s gender stereotypical play, but they also identify socialisation and television advertising as key influencing factor. Cordelia Fine’s superb (and very readable and often very funny) book Delusions of Gender discusses parents’ inability to recognise how gender role socialisation has been expressed and experienced in their family, which leads them to assume that gendered behaviour seen in their children must be biologically driven. These are the parents who buy their girls nothing but pink clothing and sparkly things, and then talk about how their girls just prefer that stuff because that’s how they are.

The prevalence of gender role socialisation can’t be understated. This BBC video shows how people habitually make assumptions about the type of play children will enjoy, based on their perceived gender. A study of rough and tumble play by Janet DiPetro exposed how boys are subjected to rougher play and physical handling from birth onwards, and how frequently fathers instigate ‘rough and tumble’ play with their sons (and not with their daughters). It’s fairly difficult to see boys’ tendency for physical play as biologically determined in the face of clear evidence that adults inadvertently train their boys to consider it normal.

A really fascinating study conducted by Morrongiello and Dawber in 1999 explored whether parents create an appetite for risky play in their children. They asked parents to teach their toddlers to reach for and slide down a ‘firefighter’ style pole, which is a fairly high risk endeavour when you’re tiny. Their findings show that girls were offered help more frequently, and constantly reminded to be careful, but boys were helped less often, and were even refused help when they asked for it. In light of this, is it any wonder that boys might grow up with a greater appetite for risky play, and greater physical confidence when playing?

Of course, gender role socialisation is also expressed constantly by the toys we buy for our children, and also the clothing we choose for them – and in the case of girls’ clothing, the wardrobe supplied by their parents can actively hinder any aspirations their daughters might have to climb trees or roll down a hill. And it’s definitely reinforced by gendered behaviour that children observe in the adult world – like TV advertising that constantly shows men being active and women being passive.

In summary, there’s not much evidence that children play differently because of fundamental biological sex differences – and a lot of evidence to support the influence of gender role socialisation. It’s important to unpick these attitudes and assumptions because they have such a bearing on whether we should address issues related to access to play spaces.

If we believe that boys are biologically driven to enjoy active play more than girls, we can disregard concerns that girls are disadvantaged through boys’ potential domination of play spaces – we can assume that girls probably wouldn’t want to play actively because it isn’t in their nature. However, if we can agree that the gender differences we see in children’s play are caused by a range of attitudes and behaviours that we pass on to them, there is greater motivation to explore and address whether boys and girls have equal access to play opportunities. We can challenge these attitudes with our own children, and support them to embrace their preferred play styles.