My daughter recently turned two, and she’s unmistakably drawn to baby dolls. She changes their diapers, takes their temperatures, sings them “Twinkle, Twinkle”— and once, she even tied a makeshift sling around herself to “wear” them the way mama wears her.
When my son was a toddler, he loved anything with wheels. He was much more likely to go wide-eyed over garbage trucks, bobcats, and propeller planes than to spend time rubbing diaper cream on the stuffed animals.
Researchers have long studied boy and girl play, and they’ve confirmed what many of us see in our homes: boys are more likely to play with construction and transportation toys, and they’re more inclined to enjoy roughhousing and play outside. Little girls are more likely to play with dolls, doll furniture, and kitchen tools, and they’re less rough and more likely to play indoors. As young as their first birthdays, boys and girls differ in which toys they choose to play with. By no means do all kids lean according to gender (my kids and their buddies play across the stereotypes quite a bit), but overall the patterns are there. In fact, toy choice and play style are two of the strongest of all the sex differences measured in babies and young kids.
It’s nature and nurture intertwining — like anything else. In the womb, for example, boys have a surge in testosterone that wires the brain for boy-type play. Female fetuses with a genetic disorder that exposes them to elevated male hormones later show increased male-type play as well: They’re more likely to choose a helicopter, a tool set, or a car over a set of dishes or a doll. Female monkeys grab dolls instead of a car if given the choice. At the same time, social learning and peer dynamics are very powerful. Whether or not we realize it, parents also shape kids’ play through the materials we put in front of them and the enthusiasm we show for their choices.
As a parent, the reasons for the boy-girl patterns don’t concern me too much. What I care about (now that I have a toddling nurse in my house), is figuring out how to help my daughter flex the areas of her brain that aren’t necessarily engaged while she’s singing lullabies and dispensing pretend cups of medicine.
In particular, I’m thinking about her spatial strength (the ability to visualize, mentally rotate, and manipulate objects in space) because even though little girls start out strong in all realms of cognitive development, boys pull ahead in this one pretty quickly. By preschool age, boys have stronger spatial skills than girls, on average, and that difference remains as they grow. Spatial skills are fundamental to subjects like math and science, and they’re linked to creativity and scholarly achievement. Down the road, boys’ math SAT scores are higher than girls’ and have been 30-40 points higher for decades (math subjects like geometry rely heavily on spatial ability). Women are underrepresented in high places within certain spatially dependent fields: They make up only 8 percent of tenure track math professors; 7 percent of physics professors; and 19 percent of the science, engineering, and technology workforce overall. Architects and interior designers need spatial skills to imagine structures and layouts. Chemists need spatial skills to think about molecules in 3D.
The former president of Harvard (famously) attributed boys’ and girls’ cognitive differences in part to biology, but it’s clear that the real point is practice. Slight differences in brain wiring don’t matter unless we use, reuse, shape, and strengthen that wiring. For those of us with little ones (girls and boys both), this is where play comes in; what our kids spend time doing matters as much (or more) than their biological inclinations. If I fully stocked the house with baby strollers and food for the play kitchen, I’d sure have one happy two-year-old today, but wouldn’t her interests narrow and snowball over time? A baby bassinet, another tea party …
Instead, I make a point of getting on the ground with her to build. We use magnet tiles to make 3D houses, LEGOs to make towers and airplanes, and blocks to make all kinds of things (last night it was a ramp for toy cars). The more practice with building shapes and testing how they form and balance in space, the better she’ll be at it; the better she becomes, the more she’ll like to do it. As neuroscientist Lise Eliot writes in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, “The earlier we can step in and tweak kids’ growing neurons and synapses, the better our chances of raising both boys and girls with well-balanced sets of skills.”
I do respect my daughter’s fondness for dolls (it brings back memories for me too), and I like following her lead to see where she gravitates. It’s also not hard to see the virtue in all her nurturing and pretend play. But just because she likes something doesn’t mean she has to spend all her time doing it — and you never know what can happen when kids are exposed to something outside of their comfort zone.
It’s not just my daughter who benefits here — my son’s brain needs lots of spatial practice too. It’s just that it came very naturally in his case because so many gender-typical toys work that way. Grandma got him a building set of straws and connectors that have instructions for making 3D airplanes and more — a perfect challenge for both kids in reading designs and constructing shapes. Other good ones include puzzles, which help kids visualize in 2D. When they’re older, certain video games have also been shown to help with spatial ability. Playing in a dollhouse should too — having to work out where to fit couches, tables, and people within the space.
Having an older brother has helped because my daughter was exposed to all the building activities in our house early on. I know the world is not all pink and blue — again, my kids defy the stereotypes a lot. (My son has always had super attention and impulse control, and he likes to sit and draw quietly. And my daughter’s favorite place is the bleachers by the local airport.) But I can see how slight preferences, coupled with our gender expectations, can widen the gap. I’m aware of my role in keeping things more balanced.
One recent afternoon, I lay out a basket of building tiles on the living room rug for my kids to play with. My son got busy making an elaborate spaceship, complete with blasters and jet packs, while my daughter made cubes for her little doll figures to sit in — both happy, both exercising an important mental muscle.
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