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    Gender Rules: A Social Manifestation? 

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    Some key terms and findings that Clarke and Parke (2014) defined, help when considering why it is common for children between the ages of two and three to exhibit patterns in playing with/engaging in gender specific toys and activities. Children are internally motivated to fit societal gender norms. Gender rules are a social and biological construct that shapes a child’s development from birth (Dinella, L.M., Weisgram, E.S., & Fulcher, 2017).

    Some early childhood studies have a strong indication that as early as two that gender stereotypes are prevalent (Kollmayer,Schultes,Schober, Hodosi, & Spiel, 2018). As early as one to six months infants gain a sense of what their needs are and begin to advocate for themselves (Clarke-Stewart & Parke, 2014). Clarke and Parke also go on to explain that toddlers begin to differentiate gender characteristics and are able to identify themselves as a specific sex.

    All of these factors considered can help one understand how and why gender specific clothing, toys, and playmates are relevant at an early age. Research has shown that father’s are more adamant about gender typing than mothers tend to be (Clarke-Stewart & Parke, pg. 327). Considering these factors gender differences and stereotypes are influenced by different areas and stages of development and parenting. Therefore, is there a difference in preference towards gender specific toys for children from single parent families versus children from two parent family homes?

    In order to gain an understanding of which activities children engaged in during play I looked at single parent families versus two parent families. The intent was to gain an understanding of the research on gender roles and stereotyping and how it may or may not differ amongst single and two parent family homes. Whether or not single parent families embrace gender roles more than two parent families or if it is relatively the same overall intrigued me. I conducted my observations on two occasions.

    The first observation was from four in the evening until five in the evening. I observed an early preschool classroom with children age two to three years old. The classroom has a total of nine students, five girls and four boys. The daycare is below an apartment complex that houses single parent families. The single parent families in this building get preference over the general public. In This particular classroom there were three girls from single parent homes and three of the four boys were from single parent homes. All of the children from single parent homes lived with their mother.

    I was able to easily identify the single parents because they all carry badges that allow them to enter the building above the center. There was also a class display titled “My Family” with a picture of each student with their siblings and parents. I was able to see names and each of the children. Two of the single parent family children were pictured with their entire family including their fathers.

    Before I began my observation I decided when a child from a single parent home played with a gender specific toy outside of the stereotypical toy they should play with that their parent was very inclusive. If a child played with toys geared toward their gender I assumed that their parent was either strict with cultural norms and/or their father has some time with them. I also was specific with which toys were going to be defined as boy toys, girl toys, and neutral toys. Dolls, kitchen supplies, jump rope and strollers were specific to girls. Hot wheel cars and basketballs were specific to boys.

    Play dough, legos, and puzzles were gender neutral toys. The language in the classroom varies greatly due to each student being slightly different in age and differences in development in general. Between four and five in the evening the children have free play and parents slowly trickle in to pick their children up. It was too cold outside so the kids were kind of antsy and had to continually be reminded to walk and use inside voices. I positioned myself in a chair in the area that is in between the diaper changing room and the playroom.

    I had a clear view of all of the children without being a distraction to them. Parents knew I would be observing because I had to get permission from the director to observe and she sent a letter home letting the parents know I would be observing. The letter did not say the time I would be there or what I was focusing on in particular. When I began my observation all nine children were present. Two boys were playing with legos, building them high and then knocking them down. This all appeared to be typical boy behavior. I identified the boys both were from a single parent home.

    The boys ended up taking a break from legos after an argument over a figure led to one of the boys throwing legos and breaking down a tower of legos. The boys were redirected by their teacher and began to draw pictures at a table that was set up for drawing. One of the boys with two parents in the home was in the kitchen with two girls from a single parent home and one of the girls from a two parent home.

    The young boy was wearing a robe and baking a cake. The girls were shopping at the supermarket while another girl rang them up. The last boy was throwing a ball at soft play bowling pins (a typical male trait). The other girl with a two parent home was playing dress up with the two girls from a single parent home. The girls had a great time trying on construction hats, cat ears, and purses. It is important to note that each child was dressed specific to their gender stereotype. Many of the girls had hair barrettes all of them had at least one piece of clothing with either pink or purple.

    Two of the boys had collared shirts and jeans. Another boy had on sweats with a shirt that had a firefighter on it and the last boy had an Adidas track suit on with matching shoes on. Throughout my observations the majority of the children partook in playing with toys that were both gender specific and neutral. On three separate occasions I saw two of the boys from a single parent family playing with the toy dolls. On one occasion a boy was trying to feed the doll and his mom came to pick him up. The mom was calm and in a gentle voice asked “are you feeding the baby?

    How sweet, see if one of the girls wants to take over.” The other child just picked up the doll and looked at it then put it back down. The third occasion the child from a two parent home was trying to put the baby to bed. All of the girls played with cars and basketballs. The use of play dough was popular amongst all of the children for a short period of time. Two of each of the boys and girls played with the puzzles for a little while also.

    My observation was over by the time any of the other kids were picked up. On the second occasion I observed, I positioned myself in the same place and observed between ten and eleven in the morning. For twenty minutes the teacher read to the children using stuffed animals to act out characters. Only a few kids sat the entire time. Some children roamed the room. The story was the three little pigs and all of the kids like huffing and puffing to blow down imaginary houses.

    The next forty minutes were spent observing the children free play while music played in the background. From time to time I observed both boys and girls dancing around then going about their tasks. This day the boys were pretty fascinated with some new big toy cars the classroom was gifted that morning. The boys spent the majority of their time racing the cars and crashing them into each other. The girls were split between painting and playing with baby dolls.

    The class was gifted play strollers, play bassinets and new clothes to dress the dolls in. About 45 minutes into my observation the kids starting venturing out to play with different toys. Two of the boys from single parent homes played at the sand table and three of the girls began playing with the kitchen set. By the end of my observation the kids were washing their hands and preparing for lunch. Although there was a mixture of play both days of my observation, research shows that as early as eighteen months kids prefer gender consistent toys (Clarke-Stewart & Parke, pg. 326).

    There has been a major focus on boys sticking to the role of what men should do. As research has also pinpointed social influences having a major role in the way children and people face gender typing. In my observation, each child conformed the social norms more than they strayed away from them. Which is consistent with the research of several scholars.

    To get a better understanding of how children feed into their gender bias it is important to see how parents influence their preferences. Kollmayer et al. (2018) set out to study 324 Austrian parents and their children ranging from three to six. Kollmayer et al. (2018) found that parents prefer same gender typed toys and neutral toys any day over cross gendered toys. The research involved surveys the parents took both online and in pencil. The surveys were then broken down into six categories to interpret the results.

    Younger parents, fathers and parents with low educational levels were more towards gender typing. Kollmayer et. al (2018) brought up the point that gender typed toys were the preference for most of the families and I got very similar results. However, my sample population was not even half as large and the low income children played with as many gender typed toys as they did gender neutral toys.

    Kollmayer’s study was also focused on Austrian parents and mine was focused on inner city Denver kids. Kollmayer’s study was very narrow and focused. I will keep that in mind for future observations. The biggest take away from Kollmayer’s study is that the parent’s toy preference for their children does not reflect their views on gender roles. Something I missed out on is the way parents feel about their child’s toys. I was unable to speak to parents and did not think to survey them.

    Dinella et al. (2017) took a slightly different approach and did three separate case studies versus a questionnaire. In the first two studies kids were presented with toys and asked their opinions on what other children may or may not pick. All of the objects were familiar to them and were either feminine, masculine, or gender neutral with wheels. Dinella and her team wanted to see if wheels (toys that propel) were more popular amongst both boys and girls.

    The study found that children were more interested in gender typed toys than gender neutral or toys with wheels. the second study the children were presented gender neutral toys. One had wheels and the other didn’t once again testing the popularity of propulsion. In this study propulsion did not matter for the gender neutral toys. The third study had the same toys as study one but the children took part in free play and that is how the measurements were taken for that portion of assessments.

    The third study also highlighted the fact that gender neutral toys were more interesting and propulsion does not matter. The study done by Dinella et al. (2017) relates to mine due to the fact that preschoolers were observed. In my study the children loved wheels and items that propel unlike in Dinella’s that wasn’t much of a factor. The majority of the participants for my study were lower class and in Dinella’s there was a mix of asian and caucasian and middle class children.

    Children seem to like similar toys regardless of economics. In my study I found that most of the children engaged in playing with toys that are gender typed. Dinella noted that girls played with both gender typed and gender neutral toys. Looking back at my research I noticed that the girls did fluctuate the same way during my observations as they did in this study.

    Although society’s views on gender are becoming more inclusive, our children are still stuck with the enigma that men must be manly and girls must be petite and fragile. The bounty of research has the general consensus that girls can stray in between gender norms while men must stay on a liner path. Single parent homes do not differ greatly from two parent homes when it comes to gender. Observing children free play can tell alot about societal norms.


    1. Clarke-Stewart, A., & Parke, R. D. (2014).
    2. Social Development, Second Edition, Wiley. Dinella, L. M., Weisgram, E. S., & Fulcher, M. (2017).
    3. Children’s gender-typed toy interests: Does propulsion matter? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(5), 1295-1305. doi:
    4. Kollmayer, M., Schultes, M., Schober, B., Hodosi, T., & Spiel, C. (2018).
    5. Parents’ judgments about the desirability of toys for their children: Associations with gender role attitudes, gender-typing of toys, and demographics.
    6. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, doi:

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