State Library of South Australia logoTo be a child heading
SA Memory. South Australia past and present, for the future

Just for fun : gender in play and toys

'...children's culture is segregated into a boys' culture and a girls' culture.'
Girls, boys, books, toys: gender in children's literature and culture edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet, 1999 page 170

The Greeks and Romans recognised the importance of play for children and its role in preparing the child for adulthood and the wider responsibilities of citizenship. The Greek philosopher Plato discussed this and the place of the mother in the child's upbringing in his treatise The Republic. Toys considered appropriate to the child's role in adulthood might be played with: dolls for girls, toy carts and tools for boys. Then, and still common today, were toys that were considered suitable for both sexes: balls or knucklebones, for example. Today a teddy bear would be considered common to both sexes.

All societies 'make some distinctions between male and female roles' (Beal, p. 4) and treat children accordingly. Many gender roles are 'socially determined' and learned by children. They have changed over time, however, particularly during the late 20th century in many countries as legal issues and restrictive policies have been modified.

What effect has this had on the selection of toys by children and for children? Attempts by parents and educators to select and encourage play with genderless toys have not always been effective - many girls still play with dolls in all their variety, and with miniature versions of household equipment and boys with guns, construction sets and wheeled vehicles. More significantly perhaps, toy departments are still arranged by gender, as are the catalogues issued by them and the broad contents of toy catalogues have changed little over time.

In the schoolyard some games are also differentiated by gender, and others are common to both: all children run and chase and play hide-and-seek. However skipping in its many forms seems to be more frequently played by girls - at least in the 20th century; Strutt (. 383) records it as an ancient game and performed by boys -and marbles more popular with boys. Organised or team sports generally however have male and female divisions.

Adult career choices are not necessarily determined by childhood play. Girls that play with dolls will not inevitably become mothers or join a 'caring' profession such as nursing; boys who play with guns or male dolls such a GI Joe will not automatically become soldiers.

'But even parents who make a concerted effort to change gender attitudes encounter opposition in the form of media pressure, peer pressure on the child, and possibly innate gender preferences.'
Girls, boys, books, toys: gender in children's literature and culture edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet, 1999, p. 170

The 21st century sees some 'toys' which are not immediately recognisable as such, for instance mobile phones, which come equipped with internet connection, camera, games and music. These are common to both sexes. Peer pressure and advertising continue to strive to overcome parental preferences in the choice of their children's play and toys.

Further reading:

Whittaker, Nicholas. Toys were us: a history of twentieth-century toys and toy-makingLondon: Orion, 2001

Jaffe, Deborah. The history of toys: from spinning tops to robots, Stroud [England]: Sutton, 2006

Beal, Carole R. Boys and girls: the development of gender roles, New York: McGraw-Hill, c1994

Clark, Beverly Lyon and Margaret R. Higonnet (eds.) Girls, boys, books, toys: gender in children's literature and culture, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Strutt, Joseph. The sports and pastimes of the people of England: including the   rural and domestic recreations, May games, mummeries, shows, processions, pageants, and pompous spectacles from the earliest period to the present time, London: William Tegg, 1867



About SA Memory

Explore SA Memory

SA Memory Themes


My SA Memory


What's on