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Gendered Toys And The Perceptions Children And Young People Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 5474 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The focus of this research was gendered toys and the perceptions children and their parents hold about these types of toys, it aimed to investigate childrens reasoning about gendered toys and looked to establish if a link exists between the perceptions of parents and the toy preferences of children. Gendered toys can be described as being toys which are generally thought of as being suitable for one gender over the other, for example wheeled toys for males and dolls for females (Pleil and Williams, 2008; Francis, 2010). Throughout this research the term gender typical toys will be used to describe toys which are traditionally considered most appropriate for the sex choosing them, the term gender atypical is used to describe toys traditionally thought of as being suitable for a child of the opposite gender to the sex of the child selecting them. This subject is especially significant today, as it appears that the manufacturing and marketing of toys is more gender stereotyped now than previously; with the vast majority of toy stores having aisles, or even entire floors dedicated to a specific gender (Francis, 2010). Therefore, today’s children are being exposed to gender stereotyped toys to a greater degree than their counterparts would have been in the past (Francis, 2010).

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Looking at research which sought parent’s experiences of what toys their children preferred has demonstrated that young children vary vastly when it comes to their choice of toys and that they have very clear opinions of what toys are most suited to each gender (Pleil and Williams, 2008). Furthermore, research has demonstrated that children develop mental schemas of objects, which are gender stereotyped from a very young age (Ruble, Martin and Berenbaum, 2006). The gender stereotypes and gender stereotypical behaviour that forms during early childhood are an interesting and important issue, as it has been established that these gender notions can influence a child’s career choices as adults (Cherney and Dempsey, 2010; Francis, 2010). Furthermore, toy choice in itself is an important issue research has shown that toys teach children vital life skills, however, these skills vary depending on which gender the toy is stereotypically aimed at (Fagot and Leinbach, 1983; Francis, 2010). It has been argued that the toys stereotypically aimed each gender foster totally different social and cognitive skills, with boys toys developing problem-solving skills whilst girls toys develop nurturing and caring skills (Cherney and London, 2006; Francis, 2010). Therefore, the toys children play with, along with children’s gender stereotypical views of them are important and valid issues to research as the impact is long term and has implications in adulthood.

There are several theoretical perspectives on how children come to acquire gender stereotypes and gendered behaviours. The social cognitive theory of gender development postulates that children learn gender norms and gendered behaviours through observing their environment and the people within it; children observe the behaviours of people in their environment and replicate them. Gendered behaviours are reinforced through the reward and punishment of behaviour, considered appropriate or inappropriate by others that the child experiences (Bussey and Bandura, 1999). Therefore, according to this standpoint the concept of gender and the acquisition of gendered behaviour is a socially constructed phenomenon. However, research conducted on Verve and Rhesus monkeys has established that young primates display the same gendered behaviours observed in their human counterparts (Alexander and Hines, 2002; Hassett, Siebert and Wallen 2008). This research suggests that gender stereotypical toy preferences may be a reflection of the biological differences between males and females rather than being a direct result of socialisation (Pleil and Williams, 2008). Therefore, according to this standpoint gendered behaviour is as a result of biological differences between the sexes. Despite this evidence, suggesting that children may be biologically predisposed to being gender stereotypical in their toy preferences, this paper is underpinned by the hypothesis that children’s social interactions, especially with their parents, are influential on their perception and choice when it comes to toys.

The overarching approach of this research was a case study, employing document analysis, questionnaire and interview techniques of data collection. The central research question for this study was “How do children and their parents perceive and reason about gendered toys and what, if any, connection exists between these perceptions in relation to children’s toy preferences”. Four aims were identified and addressed by formulating four research questions, in order to answer the central research question. These research questions were:

What are children’s toy preferences and how, if at all, are these preferences interrelated to the gender of the child?

How do children reason about their toy choice when deciding which toys they wish to play with?

What are parental perceptions of the suitability of gendered toys?

How, if at all, are parental perceptions of toys interlinked with toy choice and the reasoning behind toy choice, of children?

Chapter 2: Review of the Literature


This review will examine issues relating to the perspectives held by children and parents on gendered toys. Firstly it will examine children’s toy preferences, exploring the gender dimorphic nature, which research has uncovered regarding children’s toy choices. Then the review will then explore the reasoning behind children’s toy choices, parental perspectives on the suitability of toys in relation to gender and finally the influence of parents on children’s perspective and choice.

2.1: Children’s Toy Preferences and Gender

It has been put forward that the vast majority of experiments designed to assess children’s toy preferences were not true reflections of what children would choose in real life (Down, 1983). Down (1983) argues that prior experiments were too restrictive, only offering a very limited choice between small selections of typically male or female toys, which rarely offered a gender neutral choice. In his own research Down assessed elementary school aged children’s toy preferences by utilising children’s letters to Santa Claus, allowing for an unrestricted, ecologically valid method of ascertaining children’s preferences in a real life, naturalistic way. Down found that many of the toys selected by the children were not traditionally gendered toys, rather they were toys which could be considered gender neutral; girls were found to be especially likely to request gender neutral toys whilst boys requested gender typical and gender neutral toys in equal measure. Nevertheless, Down’s research also demonstrated that boys and girls both prefer gender typical toys over gender atypical toys, a notion which has been supported through the findings of subsequence research (Carter and Levy, 1988; Martin, Eisenbud and Rose, 1995; Cherney et al, 2003).

Recent research which, like Down’s work offered a holistic insight into children’s toy preferences, was conducted by Cherney and London (2006). The child participants in this study were asked to list their favourite toys, the participants were free to choose whatever toys they wished. Considerable differences were found in the favourite toys that were chosen based on the child’s gender, replicating the previous finding of Down; both boys and girls preferred gender typical over gender atypical toys. They also discovered that whilst boy’s preferences became slightly more masculine as the child aged, that in contrast girl’s toy preference became less feminine with age.

More recently it has been discovered that even the youngest children, infants aged between 3 and 8 months, appear to show a preference for gender typical toys. Alexander, Wilcox and Woods (2009) investigated whether infants display a preference for gender typical toys, this was ascertained using eye-tracking technology to measure the time the infants spent focused on either a truck or a doll. It was found that girl infants showed a preference for the doll, whilst the boy infants spent more time focused on the truck. The research of Alexander, Wilcox and Woods, supports the notion of a biological foundation for gendered preferences of toys. The notion of a biological underpinning for children’s gender-based preferences has been highlighted through research conducted with infant monkeys (Alexander and Hines, 2002; Hassett, Siebert and Wallen 2008), as these preferences are being observed at an age before it is commonly accepted that children have established gender identity and gender typical behaviour.

However, it cannot be ignored that some of the research discussed above (Alexander and Hines, 2002; Hassett, Siebert and Wallen, 2008 and Alexander, Wilcox and Wood, 2009), is guilty of the very criticism put forward by Down (1983). These studies only offered the participants a choice between limited arrays of gendered toys with none offering participants a gender neutral option. Therefore, it could be argued that these studies do not demonstrate well-rounded picture of children’s toy preferences and therefore the validity of these findings could be called into question. Nevertheless, the findings of these studies, when considered alongside the more well-rounded research discussed above (Down, 1983; Cherney and London, 2006) clearly show that children, of both the human and primate variety, demonstrate a marked preference for gender typical over gender atypical toys, therefore providing a valid and important insight into children’s toy preference and the difference between the preferences of girls and boys.

2.2: Children’s Reasoning Regarding Toy Preference and Suitability

Through previous research, several key factors have emerged that influence a child’s reasoning about whom toys are suitable for. Several studies have found that children’s reasoning about who else would enjoy playing with a particular toy is often egocentric. It has been found that when a child likes a particular toy they often reason that other children of their own gender would also like the toy and conversely children of the opposite gender would not like it (Carter and Levy, 1988; Martin, Eisenbud and Rose, 1995; Cherney, Harper and Winter, 2006). These studies show that young children often used egocentric reasoning when thinking about what other children would like, they conclude that what they enjoy others of their own sex would also enjoy and those of the opposite sex would not.

However, Martin, Eisenbud and Rose (1995) established that when toys are labelled as being for a certain gender, it is highly influential on children’s reasoning about who would enjoy that toy. They presented children with attractive, but unfamiliar toys and asked them to rate the toys appeal to themselves and other children, the results were concurrent with the previous research of Carter and Levy (1988), the children’s reasoning was egocentric; they concluded that what they liked other children of their gender would like. However, when they presented the children with another set of toys, applying gender labelling to them, they uncovered a very different reaction. The children used the gender labels to reason about their own and others preference for that toy, even with a very attractive toy, if it was labelled for the opposite gender the children were less favourable towards that toy and reasoned that other children of their own gender wouldn’t like it either. Therefore, this research clearly demonstrates the power of gender labels to influence children’s reasoning and preferences when choosing what toys they themselves would enjoy as well as when considering what other children would enjoy.

Another common influence on children’s gender-based reasoning uncovered by recent research conducted by Cherney and Dempsey (2010) is gender association; children would habitually reason that a toy was most suitable for a particular gender based on the gender of the toy itself. An example of this was when a swimming pool, a toy deemed to be gender neutral, was classified as being a ‘girl’s toy’ because it featured Dora the Explorer whom is herself a girl. Furthermore, this research has also identified toy colour as being another factor which influences children’s reasoning and toy preferences. Using gender ambiguous and neutral toys, this research aimed to establish how young children classify toys with less notable gender typical features, finding that colour was commonly cited as a reason for the classification of toys by gender (Cherney and Dempsey, 2010). This finding could be due to the increasing trend seen in recent years for toy manufacturers to commonly market the same toy, which is often a gender neutral toy such as a camera, in gender typical colours. With the pink option being marketed at girls and the blue version marketed at boys.

The studies outlined above demonstrate that children’s reasoning about toy preferences and suitability is influenced by a number of factors and is often egocentric. However the common thread running throughout all these studies is that outside influences, such a gender labels and colour greatly influences the toys children like. The personal, egocentric reasoning employed by children in the absence of outside influences, coupled with the change in children’s reasoning that comes with outside influences clearly shows that children are highly aware of societal and cultural ‘norms’ and it would appear that, on the whole, children tend to conform to these gender ‘norms’ when it comes to the toys they considered to be most appealing.

2.3: Parental Perceptions of Gendered Toys and Their Suitability

During the late 1970s an observational study was conducted, which investigated how parents praise and punish children’s behaviour, it was found that the types of behaviours parents praise or punish differ for boys and girls. The study discovered that boys were punished when they played with gender atypical toys and praised when they played with gender typical toys, it also found that girls were punished for rough and tumble play (Fagot, 1978). Therefore, it would seem from this research that parents have clear views on what toys and play styles are suitable for either sex and that they actively discourage their children from engaging in play or using toys traditionally stereotyped as belonging to the opposite sex. This finding was supported by later research, investigating parental participation in children’s play (Roopnarine, 1986), which discovered parents most often participated when their children were playing with toys traditionally considered appropriate for their gender. Therefore, these studies (Fagot, 1978; Roopnarine, 1986) suggest that parents, either directly through punishment or indirectly through their lack of participation, encourage their children to prefer gender typical toys and reject gender atypical ones.

However, more recently a study conducted by Wood et al (2002) investigating parental views of gender stereotyped toys found that traditional gender categorisation of toys did not reflect the parents views on toy suitability. This study found that many toys traditionally considered to be either male or female, were categorised as being gender neutral by the parents. The physical features of the toys used in this study were controlled to limit factors, such as colour, from influencing gender categorisation. Therefore, the parents must have made their decision based on something outside of the physical features of the toys; the researchers believed this could be due to a shift in recent times of the typical gender role stereotypes (Wood et al, 2002). Nevertheless, this study discovered that parents believed gendered toys to be most desirable to the gender the toy is traditionally assigned to. This research also observed parents and children at play to ascertain which toys were utilised most often by each gender. While observing boys and parents typically masculine toys were played with the most, a finding consistent with previous studies however, when observing girls and parents there was more flexibility, playing with feminine and neutral toys equally which deviates from previous studies. Therefore the shift in how parents categorised toys uncovered by this research did not reflect in their real life play situations with their children (Wood et al, 2002).

The findings of these studies (Fagot, 1978; Roopnarine, 1986) suggest that parents have differing views on what toys and activities are suitable for children based on their gender, and that they reinforce these views through their behaviour when interacting with their child. However, more recent findings (Wood et al, 2002) suggest that parents view of traditionally gender stereotyped toys is evolving and that modern parents are reinterpreting the traditional roles of gendered toys. Nevertheless, despite this shift in how parents are categorising children’s toys, Wood et al (2002) still found that parents believed stereotypically gendered toys to be most desirable to the gender typically associated to them, showing that there is still a gender division in children toys.

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2.4: Parental Influence on Children’s Toy Choices and Reasoning

It has been argued by Mischel (1966) that children learn gendered behaviours prior to realising that they belong to a particular gender, this occurs through a process of modelling and reinforcement by adults. Furthermore, as previously discussed the praise and punishment delivered by parents differs depending on the sex of the child, with girls and boys both being praised for gender typical behaviour and punished for gender atypical behaviour (Fagot, 1978). These two pieces of literature suggest that children learn gender labelling and gendered behaviours through the social interactions they experience in their early lives. This standpoint on children’s acquisition of gender labels and gendered behaviour is called social learning theory and opposes the cognitive-developmental theory of children acquisition of gendered behaviours as proposed by Kohlberg (1966). The cognitive-developmental theory argues that children develop an awareness of their own gender before developing an understanding of the typical behaviour associated with each gender (Kohlberg, 1966). Through the lens of the social learning theorist gendered behaviours are viewed as being a precursor of the gender development process, whereas cognitive-developmental theorists sees gender development as being a causal factor in children acquiring gendered behaviours (Weinraub et al, 1984). Therefore from a social learning perspective parents, as young children’s primary socialiser, have a massive potential to influence the existence of gender behaviour in their child and therefore may influence the types of toys children choose to play with.

Research conducted investigating young children’s gender identity, toy choices and family characteristics has found that parents do hold an influence over their child’s toy choice (Weinraub et al, 1984). However, this influence was not universal for mothers and fathers. The study found that in the case of mothers it is their occupation, not their sex-typed personality traits, which affect children’s development of gender labelling and therefore their toy choices. On the other hand, the study found that in the case of fathers, sex-typed personality traits strongly influenced the development of gender labels in children, and their toy preferences, especially in the case of boys (Weinraub et al, 1984). However, another study conducted shortly after found that contrary to previous research suggesting fathers as being the primary force supporting the development of children learning gender labels, that mothers and fathers were equally involved (Roopnarine, 1986). The results of these studies (Weinraub et al, 1984; Roopnarine, 1986) demonstrate that parents, especially fathers of boys, can influence the gender labels that children develop, and in turn the choices children make about toys and support the hypothesis proposed by social-learning theorists.

Chapter Three: Methodology

3.1: Research Methods

The overarching research design of this research was that of the case study. This design was chosen as it enables real life participants to be examined in a real life situation, allowing for an in-depth insight into the phenomenon being investigated (Cohen et al, 2011). The phenomenon this research project examined was gendered toys; it investigated how children and their parents perceive and reason about such toys and aimed to establish whether there is a link between the perceptions of parents and the preferences of children. A further benefit of the case study approach is that it allows findings to be presented in a clear and concise manner, enabling the reader to have a clearer understanding of the ideas being presented (Cohen et al, 2011).

Case studies have been defined as being the study of a single instance within a bounded system, for example a school, class, community (Adelman et al, 1980; Creswell, 1994 cited in Cohen et al, 2011). However, it has been put forward that such a tight definition is not an appropriate definition of the case study approach. Yin (2009) argues that the line between the phenomenon being investigated and the context where it is being investigating is not clear-cut; therefore it is important contextualise case studies by employing strategies such as rich descriptions and details. Nevertheless, this case study did investigate a phenomenon within a bounded system, focusing on families from within a community whose children all attend the same school. The case study approach was chosen for this research as the approach is particularly useful in establishing cause and effect, and the aim of this research was to establish if parental perceptions influence children choices. In addition, case studies allow the effects of a phenomenon to be observed within a real life perspective, allowing for a better understanding of how the context of a situation influences both cause and effect (Cohen et al, 2011).

Case studies are excellent for providing both the researcher and the reader with an in-depth and rich understanding of the phenomenon being investigated. Nevertheless, as a case study is usually focused upon a fairly narrow line of inquiry, focused on a specific phenomenon or a single setting, it does have its limitations. A major, often cited limitation is the lack of generality; finding and conclusion drawn by a case study cannot be applied to a wider context than that within which it was conducted (Robert-Holmes, 2011). It is therefore of upmost importance that researchers conducting case studies do not attempt to make claims applying the knowledge obtained through a case study universally.

This research employed three data collection methods within its case study research design, these were, questionnaires, documentary research and an interview. Three methods of data collection were employed in order to provide the study with triangulation. Triangulation is the process of employing two or more methods of data collection when researching an aspect of human behaviour, allowing the researcher to obtain a more comprehensive picture of the behaviour they are investigating (Cohen et al, 2011; Robert-Holmes, 2011). Triangulation is important as it provides the research with validity, which in turn makes the conclusions drawn by research more believable to the reader (Mukherji & Albon, 2009). An overview of these methods and their benefits and limitations, will follow.

Questionnaires can be a useful tool for gathering data for research as they quickly collect large quantities of data, and due to the standardised nature of the questionnaire the data collected is easily comparable (Willan, 2010; Robert-Holmes, 2011). However, it must be noted that questionnaire data lacks the depth and breadth of interview data, which offers a more in-depth insight of people’s thoughts, beliefs and attitudes (Robert-Holmes, 2011). Whilst questionnaires can be very useful, being easy to distribute and a comparatively cheap and quick method of collecting large quantities of data, they can prove problematic as getting responses back can often be challenging (Willan, 2010; Robert-Holmes, 2011). Furthermore, the formulation of a questionnaire can be difficult to get right requiring careful consideration; it is especially easy for questionnaires to lack clarity, be ambiguous and to be leading to its participants (Willan, 2010). Therefore, special consideration needs to be taken to ensure the questions are formulated in a way to ensure the necessary data is collected, whilst making sure that the questionnaire itself is not overly long or complicated. An overly long or complex questionnaire can put off potential participants, which in turn may result in a low response rate which then effects the breadth of the data collected (Oppenheim, 1992; Foody, 1993). For this reason, the questions for this projects questionnaire were designed to be clear and concise furthermore, unnecessary questions were omitted from the questionnaire in an attempt to maximise participation.

Documentary research can provide an insight into human social activity, briefly speaking a document can be describes as being a record of an event or a process, which is produced by an individual or group (Cohen et al, 2011). Documentary research can help researchers understand current practices; however through analysing historical documentation researchers can use this method to investigate how historical perceptions have influenced current thinking (Willan, 2010; Cohen et al, 2011). Documentary evidence can come in many different formats and is not merely the analysis of written documents, such as policy documents and letters; documentary evidence can be obtained from various multimedia sources such as radio, films and emails (Willan, 2010; Cohen et al, 2011). The documents analysed by this research were collages of favourite toys produced autonomously by the child participants; it was used to provide a current picture of the children’s toy preferences obtained with minimal adult influence. However, documents do not provide information automatically, they require careful analysis and interpretation to reveal the information contained within them. Therefore, the worth of data obtained through documentary analysis is highly variable, depending on how able the person analysing it is to fully understanding its meaning (Cohen et al, 2011).

The final method of data collection employed by this study was the semi-structured interview, employing the use of an interview guide which, while listing areas to be discussed was not a fixed, premeditated interview schedule as would be used in a structured interview (Robert-Holmes, 2011). The semi-structured technique was selected over the structured technique as it provides a good degree exploration whilst minimising the potential to wander from the intended area of discussion (Willan, 2010; Robert-Holmes, 2011). Semi-structured interviews centre firmly on the participant and their beliefs and opinions, rather than the researcher, which is the case in a structured interview; there is far more scope for the participant to influence the course the interview takes. When conducting a semi-structured interview the researcher acts as a facilitator encouraging the participants to vocalise their opinions about the matter being discussed (Robert-Holmes, 2011).

The interviews for this study were conducted as a group in the children’s school environment, additionally the researcher was known to these children from their role as a volunteer in the class. These measures were taken to ensure that the children felt as comfortable as possible, as feeling intimidated or uncomfortable by the situation could potentially affect the success of the interview (Robert-Holmes, 2011). Furthermore, it was felt that building a good rapport with the children, through volunteering in their classroom before commencing the data collection was imperative. This was because children are generally not used to unfamiliar adults asking them about their thoughts, feelings or experiences, therefore good researcher-child relationships are fundamental for successfully interviewing children (Folque, 2010).

3.2: Ethical Considerations

Before data collection commenced a letter explaining the aims and data collection methods of this research was presented to both the school and the parents of the children participating in the research. This was to ensure that all parties involved were aware of how and why the research was being conducted; a Criminal Records Bureau enhanced disclosure certificate was also shown to the school and made available for the parents to view to demonstrate that the research was being conducted by a suitable adult.

Through giving participants transparent information on the aims and data collection methods of the research allowed the adult participants to give their informed consent to participate on the research. Parents were asked for their permission for the children to participate, additionally the children were briefed on their part in the research and it was made clear to all parties that their participation was in no way compulsory and that they were free to withdraw at any point. Copies of the letters sent to the school and parents, along with the ethical approval form for this research can be found in the appendices (See Appendix 2 and 3).

Chapter Four: Results

4.1 Analysing Children’s Toy Collages


In order to collect information about the toy preferences of the children participating the document analysis method of data collection was used, the documentary evidenced analysed was collages created by the children of their favourite toys. Full details of this method can be found in the methodology chapter of this research project (See 3.1).


The aim of using document analysis was to ascertain the children’s toy preferences in a naturalistic and unbiased way. It allowed the children to complete a collage of their favourite toys autonomously, with minimal outside influences. This information was required to determine to what extent, if at all, children prefer gender stereotypical toys.


In total 31 families of Year 2 children at a West Midlands primary school were contacted with details the research and asked if they would be interested in participating. In total 10 families expressed an interest in taking part, giving a response rate of 32.2 %, 4 families were then selected to participate. The families selected were of white British background and from intact family units. These families were chosen because of the commonality of their backgrounds, in order to minimise variables due to ethnicity, culture and family dynamics. The sample group consisted of four children; 2 boys and 2 girls aged between 6 and 7years old.

The children were provided with a toy catalogue, featuring a wide range of different types of toys. The children were also provided with a choice of coloured paper, scissors and glue. Adults were on hand to assist the children with cutting out and sticking if this was needed.

The activity was child led but supervised by adults, this was to minimise adult influence on the children’s choices whilst ensuring the activity was safe. The activity was conducted in the children’s school environment, to ensure the children felt comfortable in order to minimise any negative effect on either the participants or the data collected (see 3.1). The children were told that they could browse through the catalogue, cut out the toys which they favoured and use them to make their collage. The children were also informed that if they could not find a toy they l


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