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How gender differences play out with preschoolers

By Lise Eliot, Ph.D.

Adapted from the author’s book Pink Brain, Blue Brain. Read review >>

Boys between two and five, raised in the U.S., Europe, Japan or probably anywhere else, overwhelmingly select toy trucks, Hot Wheels, cars and balls when they’re given a choice of one of those over a doll. Three year old girls opt strongly for baby dolls, toy kitchen utensils or a toy beauty set.

These gender-typical toy preferences emerge somewhere around the first birthday. Though small differences are present at birth, the gap between boys and girls widens tremendously between the ages of two and six, with some differences becoming more stark than they will be at any later time in life.

Is it nature or nurture?

As babies, boys and girls both start out liking dolls, but boys are drawn to  balls and vehicles during their second year as their higher activity level and physicality kick in.

The strength of a toddler’s preference, once it emerges, and the universality of gender difference across cultures tell us that genes and hormones are indeed important. And our “nature” is augmented by social factors, especially a child’s own growing awareness of being a boy or a girl.

Parents also reinforce boy/girl toy preferences by reacting differently to a child’s choices. Subtly or not, parents discourage boys from playing with “girl toys” and, to a lesser extent, girls from playing with “boy toys.” In other words, gender differences begin as seeds, planted by genes and hormones, but they are nurtured through social learning and by kids’ strong urge to conform.

Should we resist stereotypes by changing the toys kids play with? Many parents have tried. But, given trucks, it’s not unusual for girls to turn them into families–and for boys to play catch with dolls.

Even so, we can find toys and activities that will encourage members of each sex to practice skills they tend to avoid. This means giving girls more balls, puzzles, big cardboard boxes and sidewalk chalk. And we can use boys’ fascination with dinosaurs, astronomy, heavy machinery and soldiers to get them reading, coloring and communicating with others.

More tips for young boys

Language enrichment. Toddler and preschool-age boys need lots of interaction to boost vocabulary and other language skills. Reading to them is one of the best ways to do this, especially books about vehicles, sports, animals and outer space. Listening to audio books is another good idea. It’s amazing how “Play” and “Pause” buttons and headphones can entice boys to sit still and listen to a story.

ABC’s and letter sounds. Kids who know their letters and recognize sounds at the beginning and end of words have an easier time transitioning to independent reading. Without putting pressure on a child, parents can read ABC books, emphasize letter sounds, read poetry, play rhyming games and encourage boys to practice writing their names and other words.

Computer games. Computers can be powerful learning tools, and boys love them. Game-based activities and computer programs can give boys extra practice learning letters, letter sounds (phonics), rhyming and other reading-readiness skills.

Fine motor skills. These don’t come as easily to boys as to girls, and they are important for paper and pencil tasks at school.  Encourage preschool boys to cut, draw, paint on easels, stamp, build with small construction toys, type and use a clipboard.

More movement. Boys need to move around at home and at preschool. This means shutting off the TV or DVD player, getting them on swings, scooters or tricycles and playing sports. Rough and tumble time with firm rules (no kicking, biting, pinching or holding) should also be okay both at home and school.

Focus on feelings. Parents can help boys give voice to their feelings, distinguishing happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disappointment and shame. By nurturing the habit and vocabulary of emotional expression, we can give boys a verbal outlet for their feelings and promote empathy skills. Pet care is another great way to teach young boys nurturing skills and cultivate their sensitive, caring side.

More tips for young girls

Extra movement. Girls don’t lag behind boys in gross motor skills during the first year, but they are slower and weaker from preschool onward. Enhance their reflexes and large motor development by giving girls more opportunities to spin, swing, jump and cartwheel.

Play soccer. Girls begin falling behind in certain spatial skills by the end of the preschool period. Give them opportunities to play ball, hit targets and other hand-eye challenges. By four or five, girls may benefit from joining a T-ball, soccer or gymnastics program.

Puzzles, mazes. Jigsaw puzzles require spatial and mental rotation tasks at which males typically outperform females. I’m fond of Gear-a-tion, the refrigerator magnet toy that allows kids to experiment with gear movement. Computer games involving spatial manipulation can also improve the ability to mentally visualize and rotate objects.

Hand her a tool. Get girls involved in home repair projects such as assembling a piece of furniture or changing a furnace filter. Girls who show little interest in toy tools become more enthusiastic when they can help fix or create something real for their household.

Musical keyboard training. Girls (or boys) will not get smarter by listening to Mozart, but they may well improve their math and reasoning skills by learning to play the piano or electric keyboard.

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