At play time, Barbie and GI Joe go their separate ways Boys', girls' toys still gender-specific

April 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

If play is the work of childhood, then toys are the tools of that trade. But the tools are seldom the same for boys and girls. Despite the efforts of parents, teachers and other adults who, over the last 30 years, have tried to get children to play with toys that are less stereotyped by gender, it is almost a sure bet which children in a preschool will be brushing Barbie's hair and which will be crashing toy trucks.

"We've all been surprised that despite the efforts of some parents, children still tend to act out the traditional sex roles of our culture," said Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies how children play. "The child's peer group may have more of an influence over this than the parents."

Researchers say that parents who worry about the long-term implications of a particular toy selected or coveted by their children may be missing the larger picture. Children who play with a wide variety of toys appear to have advantages over children who play only with toys associated with one sex.

"Children are shortchanged if they're limited this way," said Dr. Phyllis A. Katz, a developmental psychologist and director of the Institute for Research on Social Problems in Boulder, Colo. In 1986, she founded what she describes as "a nonsexist, nonviolent toy store."

"Girls may be more shortchanged than boys," she said. "Traditional girl toys like dolls don't allow them to practice the same academic skills as traditional boy toys such as blocks and trucks. Girls won't be rewarded in school for being nurturant as much as boys will be rewarded for mastering spatial and mathematical skills."

The long-term implications of the toys a child plays with are less ++ clear. While most young children play games of cops and robbers, for example, very few grow up to become police officers or thieves.

Play allows children to test social roles and to experiment with feelings of power that are absent from other areas of their lives.

"I wouldn't worry if your daughter doesn't want to play with trucks or your son doesn't want to play with dolls, or vice versa," said Dr. Jeffrey L. Derevensky, an associate professor of educational psychology at McGill University in Montreal who studies children's play. "It doesn't predict anything about later life."

Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, a child psychologist and former director of the San Francisco International Toy Museum, said: "The fact that your 4-year-old daughter loves to play with dolls and frilly clothes doesn't mean that she won't become a construction engineer or a lawyer when she grows up. What's important is that there are other types of toys available for her."

Boys who don't have sisters and girls who don't have brothers will often start playing with toys associated with the opposite sex when they enter preschool. It's their first chance to try out these toys and to experiment with the roles that go with them.

Child development experts suggest that children have access to toys that allow them to explore different skills like imagination, cooperation, spatial relationships, turn-taking, organizing and physical coordination.

That diversity has more to do with the types of interactions the toys invite than with the names children or toy manufacturers give them.

In fact, "action figures" like GI Joe or Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles are only dolls marketed to boys. Their critical differences from a Raggedy Ann doll are in the imaginative play they inspire and in the comfort they can provide to a child.

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