Applied Psychology OPUS

Preschooler Gender-Typed Play Behaviors as a Function of Gender of Parents, Siblings, and Playmates

Eunice Lau

From an early age, boys and girls learn to think and behave in ways that are typical of their gender through a process known as gender socialization, or the internalization of gender-typed behaviors and thought patterns (Golombok et al., 2008; Iervolino, Hines, Golombok, Rust, & Plomin; 2005). In other words, differences in how boys and girls think about themselves and function on a regular basis are shaped by societal expectations associated with their gender (Raag & Rackliff, 1998; Rust et al., 2000). Specifically, boys tend to display aggressive, competitive behavior while girls prefer teamwork and mutual appreciation because society expects males to be active leaders and females to be cooperative team members (Rust, Hines, Johnston, & Golding, 2000; Stoneman, Brody, & Mackinnon, 1984).

Children learn about gender expectations with the involvement of same and opposite-sex parents, siblings, and playmates through play, an activity that facilitates the learning of gender-typed play behaviors (Fabes, Martin, & Hanish, 2003; Golombok et al., 2008; Golombok et al., 2012; Rust et al., 2000; Tenebaum & Leaper, 2002). In more detail, parents praise their children when they play with toys associated with their gender, such as boys playing with trucks and action figures and girls playing with play sets and participating in pretend play (Farr, Forssell, & Patterson, 2010; Golombok et al., 2008; Lindsey & Mize, 2001). However, when children act in a way that is atypical of their gender, such as boys playing with dolls or girls playing aggressively with other children, their parents reprimand them and suggest gender-typed play choices (Bornstein, Haynes, Pascual, Painter, & Galperin, 1999; Iervolino et al., 2005; Lindsey & Mize, 2001; McHale, Crouter, & Whiteman, 2003; Tenebaum & Leaper, 2002). In addition, siblings serve as a model for children as to how they should play and interact with their surroundings (Rust et al., 2000). Similarly, playmates reinforce the display of gender-typed behaviors, leading children to learn gender-appropriate attitudes and behaviors in order fit in with their peers (Iervolino et al., 2005; Langlois & Downs, 1980).
Parents, siblings, and playmates serve as important contexts for preschool-aged children to learn about gender-typed and cross-gender typed behaviors (Endendijk et al., 2013; Fabes et al., 2003; Farr et al., 2010; Jacklin, DiPietro, & Maccoby, 1984; Rust et al., 2000). Variations in how social agents encourage gender-appropriate play behaviors and disapprove cross-gender ones has often been attributed to the gender composition of these groups (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Endendijk et al., 2013; Fabes et al., 2003; Stoneman et al., 1984). Examination into the ways that the gender makeup of important social agents contributes to gender differences in play behaviors is important because at this age, children begin developing more concrete gender-related identities and preferences by using same-sex and other-sex parents, siblings, and playmates as models for their own play styles (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Endendijk et al., 2013;). The present review seeks to examine how the gender composition of parental dyads (i.e., two same-sex parents or two opposite-sex parents), siblings (i.e., brothers or sisters), and groups of playmates (i.e., same-, other-, or mixed-sex groups) contributes to gender differences in play behaviors among preschool-aged children.


Play is one of the most popular and versatile contexts in which parents facilitate the learning of gender-appropriate behaviors and modes of thinking in their children (Bornstein et al., 1999; Wood et al., 2002). Through play, parents suggest toy choices and play styles that are generally associated with their children’s gender (Caldera, Huston, & O’Brien, 1989; Endendijk et al., 2013; Lindsey & Mize, 2001). For example, parents select toys that are deemed gender-appropriate for their children (Caldera et al., 1989; Endendijk et al., 2013; Golombok et al., 2008). Girls are given dolls and play sets while boys are given toy guns and cars (Kane, 2006). At other times, parents engage gender-typed play styles with their children, preferring pretend play with their girls, which encourages them to adopt nurturing play roles with their dolls, and rough-and-tumble play with their boys, which is more physically and verbally aggressive than pretend play (Caldera et al., 1989; Lindsey & Mize, 2001; Liss, 1983). By preschool years, parental direction towards particular kinds of play leads children to prefer play activities associated with their gender over those associated with the opposite gender (Farr et al., 2010).

While parental play choices are important in developing a preference for gender-typed play behaviors, the gender composition of parent couples reasserts these play preferences (Jacklin et al., 1984). In families headed by heterosexual couples (mother-father), parents teach their children to play in styles that are considered appropriate for their gender by giving them toys typical of their gender (Goldberg, et al., 2012; Langlois & Downs, 1980; Leaper, 2000). Heterosexual parents tend to give their girls dolls to encourage care for another “person”, large playhouses to simulate work in the household, and dress-up clothing to assert the notion that girls should be fashion-conscious (Caldera et al., 1989; Golombok et al., 2008; Golombok et al., 2012). In contrast, heterosexual parents present their boys with trucks, cars, and sports gear, all of which allows them to engage in physically active forms of play that also shape their leadership skills (Caldera et al., 1989; Farr et al., 2010; Golombok et al., 2008). Unlike gender-typed play, cross-gender play is often discouraged by heterosexual parents out of fear of future homosexuality in boys and increased masculinity in girls (Kane, 2006). However, this trend has started to change as heterosexual parents become less gender-typed in their play choices and more accepting of cross-gender play (Freeman, 2007; Kane, 2006).

While heterosexual parents exhibit commonalities in their play with their children, heterosexual fathers and mothers show gendered variations in their play styles with their sons and daughters (Bradley & Gobbart, 1989; Jacklin et al., 1984; Leaper, 2000). Fathers’ play with their sons tends to reassert gender-typed play through stronger adherence to gender expectations while their play with their daughters displays mostly feminine themes (Bradley & Gobbart, 1989; Freeman, 2007; Goldberg, et al., 2012; Jacklin et al., 1984; Langlois & Downs, 1980; Raag & Rackliff, 1998). Fathers follow gender expectations more strictly than mothers, often reinforcing same-gendered play and discouraging cross-sex play in their children (Jacklin et al., 1984). Compared to fathers, mothers are usually more gender flexible with their sons, incorporating masculine and feminine behaviors and styles into play (Freeman , 2007; Jacklin et al., 1984). In regards to their daughters, mothers engage in higher levels of same-sex play behaviors, which can be explained by shared gender interests (Jacklin et al., 1984). They also reinforce gender play expectations more often when they play with their daughters than when they play their sons (Freeman , 2007; Jacklin et al., 1984).
In comparison, children in families headed by homosexual parents are exposed to play environments that are more likely to encourage cross-gender play than children in families headed by heterosexual parents (Goldberg et al., 2012). Studies have found that play behaviors between boys and their lesbian mothers are less gender-typed than play between heterosexual fathers and their daughters, heterosexual mothers and their sons, and heterosexual mothers and their daughters (Goldberg et al., 2012). Boys with lesbian mothers engage in cross-gender play without much disapproval, often playing with toys associated with girls (Goldberg et al., 2012). Since fathers tend to be less tolerant of cross-gender play, the absence of a heterosexual father figure in lesbian-headed families might explain the acceptance of cross-gender play in sons (Goldberg et al., 2012; Kane, 2006; Langlois & Downs, 1980). Similarly, daughters with lesbian mothers are more likely to engage in cross-gender play compared to girls with heterosexual mothers (Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986; Hoeffer, 1981). For example, they play with trucks, an activity associated with boys, more often than girls with heterosexual mothers (Green et al., 1986). They also participate in more rough-and-tumble play, a behavior usually seen in boys, compared to girls of heterosexual mothers (Green et al., 1986). In contrast, research has shown that gay men engage in parenting styles that are a mixture of masculine and feminine rather than a “double-dose of ‘masculine’ parenting” that is commonly expected of the parental pairing (Biblarz & Stacey, 2010, p. 12; Goldberg et al., 2012). The lack of a female parent might present gay fathers as a model of both masculinity and femininity for their daughters, which might explain why daughters of gay men do not engage in less feminine play compared to daughters of lesbian and heterosexual mothers (Goldberg et al., 2012).

In sum, due to a stronger adherence to traditional gender norms, heterosexual parents are more gender-typical in their play and less supportive of gender-atypical play compared to homosexual parents (Goldberg et al., 2012). Homosexual parents’ acceptance of their children’s play with toys and engagement in play styles associated with the opposite gender encourages their children to participate in cross-gender play more often than children of heterosexual couples (Goldberg et al., 2012; Green et al., 1986). While research has shown that the gender composition of parental dyads influences the display of gender-typed and cross-gender typed play behaviors, the gender composition of another family unit – siblings – has also been found to play an important role in the development of play behaviors in preschool-aged children (Rust et al., 2000; Stoneman, Brody, & MacKinnon, 1986).


Differences in play behaviors among brothers and sisters can be attributed to the gender-typed play expectations they pass onto their younger and older siblings (Endendijk et al., 2013; Rust et al., 2000; Stoneman et al., 1984). Brothers tend to be dominant and aggressive when playing with their siblings mostly because boys are expected to be forceful in their actions towards others (Rust et al., 2000). In comparison, the play behaviors of sisters with their siblings are often passive and involve more communication because girls are expected to be more cooperative and less assertive than boys (Rust et al., 2000).

Various gender compositions of sibling play groups have been shown to display different levels of sex-typed and cross-sex play in preschool-aged children (Rust et al., 2000; Stoneman et al., 1986). Same-sex siblings are the most sex-typed in their play due to mirroring and modeling of behaviors after individuals who share the same sex (Rust et al., 2000). Male sibling dyads engage in more male gender-typed play activities than any other sibling dyad while female sibling dyads show more female sex-typed play than male dyads (Stoneman et al., 1986). A possible explanation for the increased amount of sex-typed play in male and female sibling dyads is that older brothers and sisters influence the play styles of their younger siblings (Rust et al., 2000).

Unlike same-sex sibling dyads, which often display same-gender play amongst brothers and sisters, cross-sex sibling dyads show less gender-stereotyping due to modeling from opposite-sex brothers and sisters (Endendijk et al., 2013). Reinforcement of cross-gender play in mixed-sex sibling groups can be seen in play activities, which are often chosen according to the sex of the older sibling (Endendijk et al., 2013; Stoneman et al., 1986). Older brothers introduce younger sisters to more masculine play activities, increasing cross-gendered play in girls with older brothers (Stoneman et al., 1986). Older sisters are usually more sensitive to the preferences of young children and less likely to impose their own views as to which play styles are considered appropriate for them (Rust et al., 2000). They also engage in more feminine play activities, which tends to be more flexible and less restrictive compared to masculine ones, with their younger brothers (Rust et al., 2000; Stoneman et al., 1986).

Like parents, siblings serve as models in the family as to which play behaviors are considered gender-appropriate and gender-inappropriate for preschool-aged children (Endendijk et al., 2013). Outside of the family context, preschoolers find themselves exposed to additional pressure from same-aged playmates to participate in same-gender play and to avoid cross-gender play in order to receive acceptance from peers (Fabes et al., 2003).


Playmates, or same-aged peers, contribute to the gender socialization of preschool-aged children through play interactions (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Langlois & Downs, 1980; Martin & Fabes, 2001; Martin et al., 2013). Preschool-aged children form play groups of varying gender compositions, ranging from same-sex to opposite-sex to mixed-sex groups (Fabes et al., 2003; Halim et al., 2013). Through these different play groups, preschoolers engage in gender-typed or cross-gender play behaviors (Fabes et al., 2003; Halim et al., 2013).

During same-sex play, the most common type of play for preschoolers, children associate themselves with same-sex peers who share gender-typed play interests and styles (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Fabes et al., 2003; Golombok et al., 2012; Martin & Fabes, 2001). Specifically, boys tend to engage in aggressive activities such as rough-and-tumble play that encourages them to exhibit forcefulness, physical contact, leadership, fighting, and taunting (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Fabes et al., 2003; Maccoby, 1990; Martin & Fabes, 2001). On the other hand, girls prefer to pair up with other girls because they are usually less aggressive in their play styles compared to boys (Fabes et al., 2003; Martin & Fabes, 2001). Girls in same-sex play groups emphasize group harmony and positive cooperation amongst playmates (Maccoby, 1990). Sex segregation between preschoolers about their gender socializes them what people who share their gender consider appropriate behaviors and interests (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Golombok et al., 2012; Martin & Fabes, 2001).

Observations of other play groups have shown that boys and girls participate in gender-typed and cross-gender-typed play behaviors to varying degrees (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005). In other-sex play, boys and girls play with one other member of the opposite sex (Fabes et al., 2003). When a girl plays with a boy, she does not show an increase in forceful play, which is often stereotypical of boys (Fabes et al., 2003). Similarly, when boys plays with a girl, he does not display an increase in low levels of active-forceful play, which is usually seen in girls (Fabes et al., 2003). Since playing with the opposite gender at this age is uncommon, play with opposite-sex dyads usually does not show significant changes to gender-typed play (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Fabes et al., 2003).

In comparison, in larger opposite-sex play groups, where preschoolers play with more than one opposite-sex playmate, there can be changes in gender-typed play behaviors (Fabes et al., 2003). Play between a boy and multiple girls and play between a girl and multiple boys show increases in cross-gender play behaviors due to stronger influences from a larger number of the opposite-sex (Fabes et al., 2003). When a boy plays with other girls, he displays less aggression and more cooperation while when a girl plays with other boys, she shows more force and roughness (Fabes et al., 2003). Similarly, when multiple boys and girls play together in a larger, mixed-sex group, boys limit their aggression due to the presence of girls, who display less aggressive play styles, and adults, who maintain control over the play styles that can be exhibited in the groups (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Fabes et al., 2003). Girls and boys change their preferences for gender-typed play activities when interacting with the opposite gender to different degrees across various play groups (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Fabes et al., 2003; Golombok et al., 2012; Martin & Fabes, 2001; Martin et al., 2013).


Research on how the gender composition of parents, siblings, and playmates plays a role in the preschool children’s play behaviors has been important in helping researchers understand variations found between same- and other-sex parents, siblings, and playmates. Same-sex and other-sex parents engage in gender-typed play styles with their children to differing degrees (Goldberg et al., 2012). In addition, same-sex and other-sex siblings encourage their siblings to play in certain play styles according to their gender (Rust et al., 2000). Moreover, same-sex, other-sex, and mixed-sex play groups present various kinds of gender-typed play groups to preschool-children, allowing them to participate in gender-typed and non-gender-typed play depending on the play group (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005; Fabes et al., 2003; Martin & Fabes, 2001).

Despite numerous studies concerning the influence of parents, siblings, and playmates on the play behaviors of preschool-aged children, there are some limitations to the current body of research. First, due to the relatively small number of gay and lesbian parents with children, there have only been a few studies that have examined the role that the gender composition of lesbian and gay parents plays in preschooler play choices (Farr et al., 2010, Goldberg et al., 2012; Green et al., 1986; Hoeffer, 1981). Future studies on lesbian and gay parent-headed families can help support extant literature on the play behaviors of their children in comparison to those of heterosexual parents. A second limitation is that a majority of the present research completed on preschooler play behaviors has been conducted on non-Hispanic, middle-class families (Goble et al., 2012). Children from different cultures have been shown to exhibit varying play styles (Goble et al., 2012). For example, Hispanic parents display more gender-typed attitudes, which might influence their children’s gender-typed play behaviors when they enter preschool (Goble et al., 2012). Additional research on other cultural populations can provide important insight into the play behaviors of preschool children across various cultural groups. Also, studies should evaluate young children’s play behaviors over time in order to gain a more detailed understanding of gender development (Goldberg et al., 2012).

Limitations in current studies on how play behaviors of preschool-aged children are influenced by the gender composition of parent, sibling, and playmate pairings and groups prompt further research. Exploration into the play behaviors of children with lesbian and gay parents, children from other cultures, and the development of play over a certain period of time can provide further insight into the gender-typed play behaviors of children. Given the importance of play behaviors in the development of cognitive and social skills in preschool children and their role in the enhancement of these skills as children enter their elementary school years, additional research into various aspects of play including play group makeup and play styles is necessary in providing a more comprehensive understanding of preschool children’s play behavior.


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