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Gender-Based Toys - Are Boys Genetically Programmed to Play With Trains and Girls With Dolls?

Hold a PhD degree is Medical Research, working at HMO as a clinical nutrition advisor specialized in children. Published 2 children`s books.

Where did gender preference come from, and why? Is it due to nature or nurture?

To answer these questions we need to first define the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological differences that distinguish males from females: you can only be one or the other. Gender is a psychological and behavioral tendency that can be seen as a spectrum: a person can be feminine, masculine, or anything in between. In general, males are considered masculine and women are considered feminine.

Let’s Take a Step Back - What is Ontogeny

Ontogeny describes the origin and development of an organism from the fertilized egg to its mature form: the study of an organism’s lifespan. Prehistoric memory. This stems from the root of our genes, in our early ancestors. Our ancestors’ roles were gender specific. Adam hunted with his mates while Eve foraged for fruits and nurtured her children. What does that have to do with 21st-century toys and play? Everything! Although humankind has evolved from the prehistoric era, nature may not be keeping pace with the changes. According to Alexander2,3 gender-based toy preference is inborn and may even develop before children are aware of gender identity and roles according to. Baby Adam, only a few months old, will be captivated by a toy truck, whereas baby Eve‘s eyes will tend to fixate on a doll (Alexander2). Motor abilities are not even required to reveal sex-typed toy-play activity; it is experience-independent. Adam and Eve may show different attention patterns with respect to toys because they are wired to be attracted to different visual characteristics. A study conducted with 18-month old toddlers showed that this early pattern continued in the social and play preferences seen in older children, further encouraged by their parents (Caldera, 19894). In boys and girls alike, from age 5-13, gender is the most influential factor determining a child’s toy preferences (Cherney, 20065), as also depicted by the paintings of the children’s rooms shown earlier.

Preferred toys based on gender

In general, boys are programmed to prefer masculine-based toys and activities, such as action figures, vehicles and rough-and-tumble play, which promote spatial vision, exploration, hunting skills and independence; while girls prefer more static activities such as dolls, stuffed animals and educational toys, which promote social and verbal skills, nurturing and patience.

My own-toygeny

Age 2: dolls, stuffed animals brought by mom & Dad.
Age 3-5: dolls, toy stroller toy cars brought by my male cousins
Age 5: Barbie dolls, Etch-A-Sketch, Play-dough brought as birthday gifts
1st grade: electronic race car track and train sets brought by my best friend’s younger brothers my older brothers.
1st grade: climbing trees, Barbie dolls, toy vehicles; nature, nurture, mommy
6th grade: As above plus jigsaw puzzles, mathematical toys brought by my male cousins

Looking at my own-toygeny, my toy preferences contradict the gender theories outlined above to some extent. Until Barbies came along and stole my heart, the toys I received were dolls and the toys I yearned for were not mine (such as vehicles—cars and train sets). The childhood vehicle preference lasted long into adulthood, as driving is still one of my favorite past times, at 40-plus (age, not speed). Anyway, can I explain the not-so-clear-cut gender toys preference of myself and of others like me? Well, I can try…

Let’s go back to nature vs. nurture. Is the division between them well defined? Should it be?

Epigenetics*: The Happy Gene

A prenatal memory. In the early 1960s in New York City, my mom is six months pregnant with me. A young hood breaks into her car and steals her camera. According to recent studies (Hines, 20026 and Smith, 20107), the testosterone surge in her body, which may have been induced by the stress caused by the predator, sent my 5'1?, yet-to-be mom locomoting after him until he dropped the camera, horrified by the sight of the enormous chasing belly. Could that testosterone surge have pressed my gene buttons and ignited the car nut in me at the early age of three and a half? There’s no science fiction here, but rather, a fine example of what may be nurture’s direct affect on nature. Epigenetics is the term which, put simply, is where the environment directly affects the genes igniting them into action. Strange? No more than the fact that my mom actually got her camera back.

Daddy bear

Give him a teddy bear. Give her a construction toy. Play with the children or have an older sibling of the opposite sex play with them. Watch what happens. Having two older brothers, whom I simply adored, may have had a profound effect on my toy preference. After all, what toy is more desirable than the one you can steal from your sibling(s)?
In other words, could nurture—such as that provided by my mom with her suggested testosterone surge (epigenetics) or my two older brothers—account for my preference for vehicles? Did this come through when I pursued a scientific career as an adult? Then … how can I explain the Barbies?
A retrospective study (Metzler-Brennan, 19858) on two groups of women—career women and housewives—demonstrated that the best predictor of a child’s would-be adult role was the degree of masculine influence in the early years. Girls with a more masculine toy preference and point of view grew up to be career women. This masculinity did not come at the expense of femininity, as the groups did not differ in this regard.
Sex must not be confused with gender. While one’s sex will not change, gender roles are more flexible. Just imagine: if boys were prompted to play with girls’ gender toys, a full grown Adam might better notice Eve’s change of hair color and clothes and (even prompted by Eve) would know better than to communicate it with a grumpy “How much did it cost?”
Girls, though still having gender-based toy preferences, are not so restricted by the environment to play only with gender-based toys. Indeed, girls tend to decrease their play with female toys as they grow and participate in play activities that promote spatial vision and technical skills. This is seen in the rising number of women using this skill to race home from work in their cars in time to cook dinner.
In conclusion, although epigenetics may be nature’s way of igniting the slower biological changes to catch up with the faster changes of environment, we still need to educate parents to provide children with opportunities to freely explore both gender-based toys and games that minimize gender-based skills: female gender-based toys for boys and vice versa. Adding nurture skills for boys will not reduce or change their inborn male nature. On the contrary, it will broaden their horizons!

I certainly don’t recommend that women chase a thief while pregnant! Clearly, we can’t depend on erratic hormonal surges during pregnancy to do our evolutionary job for us.


1. Gottlieb, Richard. “Gender & Toys Survey.” USA Toy Experts on February 14, 2011, at the American International Toy Fair at the Jacob Javits Center, New York City.
2. Alexander, GM, Wilcox T, Woods, R. “Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual Interest in Toys.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2009. 38:427-433.
3. Alexander, GM. “An Evolutionary Perspective on Sex-typed Toy Preference: Pink, Blue and the Brain.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 2003. 32:7-14.
4. Caldera, YM, Huston AC, O’Brien M. “Social Interactions and Play Patterns of Parents and Toddlers with Feminine, Masculine and Neutral Toys.” Child Development. 1989. 60(1):70-6.
5. Cherney, ID, London K. “Gender-linked Differences in Toys, Television Shows, Computer Games and Outdoor Activities of 5- to 13-year-old Children.” Sex Roles, 2006. 54:717-726.
6. Hines, M, Golombok, S, et al. “Testosterone During Pregnancy and Gender Role Behavior of Preschool Children: A Longitudinal Population Study.” Child Development, 2002;73(6):1678-1687.
7. Smith, AS, Birnie, AK and French, JA. “Maternal Androgen Levels During Pregnancy Are Associated with Early-life Growth” in Geoffroy’s Mamosets, by Geoffroy Callithrix.. General and Comparative Endocrinology 2010. 166(2):307-313.
8. Metzler-Brennan, E, Lewis, RJ and Gerrard, M. “Childhood Antecedents of Adult Women’s Masculinity, Femininity and Adult Career Role Choices.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 1985. 9(3): 371-382.

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