Play & Learning Battle of the Sexes

When it comes to boys verses girls, is there a real difference in how they play and learn?  Does the stereotype that boys like to play rough and be tough and that girls like dolls and malls have scientific backing?  Time for play and learning battle of the sexes!

Biological Differences

Without pushing too much high school biology on you, here are some important bullet points to know when it comes to biological gender differences.  This list is not a complete list, but contains the most dramatic differences (see citations below):

– Boys have more of the hormone testosterone.  Higher levels of testosterone is linked with more aggressive behavior, risk taking and sexual behaviors.

– Girls have more of the hormone estrogen.  Higher levels of estrogen is associated with more social, verbal and caring types of behaviors.

– Boys generally have bigger brains than girls (>8%), but girls have more folds resulting in more surface area.

– Girls have larger neurons resulting in a larger corpus callosum (“information superhighway” which connects two regions of the brain) which lends to the higher verbal performance on IQ tests.

– Boys have a larger portion of the parietal lobe that lends boys to having better visuospatial skills and performing better of non-verbal parts of IQ tests.

Impact on Play and Learning

Human identity if first defined by gender.  Before you even have a name, you have a sex.  “Oh, is it a boy or a girl?  Girls are just so sweet, but boys are a ton of fun!” Ever said or heard someone say something like this to you?  I am guilty!

Gender impacts a child’s development of their identity, in part because of cultural reinforcements and in part from biology.  In the early years, it influences how a child plays and learns (which impacts their intellectual, physical, social and emotional development).  It may change how a child approaches a problem or responds to a success or failure.  It may, occasionally, impact which activity your child chooses or how he/she interacts with a toy, but it is, by no means, the deciding factor.  The most substantial influence that gender will have on a child how other’s approach or perceive them, especially their mother and father.

Do you without thought (I am guilty too!) offer boys the blue cup and girls the pink?  Do you offer boys the truck while presuming, “Now, I know you’ll love this!”.  Based on the above biological differences, you may well be right, but why presume?  Presumptions put children is the difficult position of needing to please you, by reinforcing your assumptions, even if they are not true.  Boys will learn to love blue and girls will learn to love pink if that is what adults lead them to believe is best.

Young children, thankfully, have a bit more freedom than older children to enjoy activities and preferences outside of their typical gender-appropriate bubble.  Socially, it is more appropriate for a 2 year old boy to dress up as Cinderella than a 6 year old boy.  Take advantage of these early years to offer every type of toy, color and activity to your child and don’t make any assumptions.  Boys need practice playing in pro-social ways to help build verbal skills and empathy and girls need a chance to play with toys that are not pink and that require logic and not just emotion.  

When you buy a child toys, take it as an opportunity to choose something for them that they would not normally receive as gift.  If a boy’s parents are expecting a new sibling, give him a boy doll that he can practice diaper changing on instead of a truck.  If a girl is turning 4, give her a Lego set with an animal theme instead of a Barbie with a frilly dress.  Toy manufactures are becoming more sensitive to the need for a offering a variety of toys that appeal to different genders, while offering similar educational features.  Girls may actually prefer soft colors like pink and purple and themes like babies, animals and house.  Therefore, look for stimulating toys that offer these features, but don’t assume that this is all that will interest them.  Likewise for boys, look for toys with themes and designs that you think they’ll be drawn to, but don’t assume that the toy needs to be blue and be associated with power (tools, trucks, super-heroes, etc…)

A great new toy that a client brought to my attention is Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine.  It uses girly themes, and colors to capture the attention of girls, while reinforcing math and science skills usually only found in boy’s toys (designed by a female engineer). (Also available on

Goldie Blox

A great “think outside the gender box” toy for young boys is Sam the Doll by Manhattan Toys.  Boys can practice caring for Baby Sam by changing his diaper, clothing and giving him a pacifier and cuddles.

Baby Sam

A Special Note about Girls

Of special concern, as a female with a 3 year old daughter, is the princess culture that is eagerly embraced by our society.  If you want to avoid the diva syndrome then beware of which toys, colors and activities you reinforce with girls.  Don’t go so far as to ban ballet and Barbie (there are wonderful lessons to be learned from both!), but be careful of how you use your words and tone of voice to encourage a little girl to play princess.  Boys “luck out” as their gender stereotype prizes behaviors and characteristics that can led to success in our culture: taking initiative, being brave, standing up to injustice, helping those in need, etc…  Girls are instead taught to be beautiful, use their beauty to get what they want, to be submissive, wait for a knight in shinning armor to rescue them, get married (as it is their chief end), etc…  I am not a big feminist (I love having the door held open for me!), but the messages offered by toys marketed to females, especially with a princess theme, are a bit unsettling.  Avoiding the princess/diva syndrome takes extra vigilance  so consider what lessons you are reinforcing to little girls if you do not take the extra effort.

Wrapping it Up

Buy girls play swords, super-hero caps, chemistry sets, Legos and the works!  She may love tae-kwon-do and not enjoy dance class.  Let your boys dress-up, play cooking and dolls, do art and take a gymnastics class.  Embrace who they are and their interests instead of pushing your own expectations of who they ought to be upon them.  Each child is a wonderful, unique individual that deserves the opportunity to try it all before choosing what really engages their mind and body.  Their biological make-up may determine what they are predisposed to choose, but they still need to be fairly offered all the choices without adult bias.  What they prefer, may surprise you!

Citations for Biology Section

Child Development by John W. Santrock

What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot, Ph.D.

Published by

Intelligent Nest

Intelligent Nest, LLC strives to empower parents, from all backgrounds, using leading scientific and philosophical theories to help parents transform their homes into an Intelligent Nest. Through examining the bidirectional nature of the parent-child relationship, Intelligent Nest, LLC aims to equip parents with practical, research-based and non-judgmental solutions to inform their parenting decisions.

2 thoughts on “Play & Learning Battle of the Sexes”

  1. I love love love your article, except the little quip about not being a feminist! Feminism has nothing to do with opening doors, or pulling out chairs. Your preference is your preference! Feminism is about equality. It is not a dirty word. It does not mean you hate men or pretty woman. It does not men your bitch or shrill. From reading your article you are clearly a feminist, because you want girls to be allotted all the same opportunities as boys, and that is not something to be ashamed of!
    A proud feminist

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Michelle! Funny thing about your comment (and my stance from this older article) is that just last week I told someone I was a feminist. Guess times change huh? While I stand behind the objectives of the feminist movement, I don’t necessarily identify with the methods or stereotypes associated with those who lead or represent the movement and therefore don’t always want to be associated with it. However, the older I become, the more I learn and the more personal experiences that I have, the more I see a need to be a “proud feminist”, as you say. So, from one feminist to another…thanks for calling me out!

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