What happens to children’s attitudes when they play with counter-gender toys?

This study also gives some insight on whether gender identity is learned or is biological.

We may not always be aware of it, but both children’s media and pop culture are awash in gender-normative attitudes and behaviors. Young children especially are susceptible to gender-related messages. Not only does such media socialize them but it also primes them for gender-specific traits and attitudes.


Generally speaking, boys and girls all over the world are taught gender roles not only through media but also play. Most of the games children play and the toys they play with support gender-normative roles. Such observations have leaked into the nature vs. nurture debate. Is gender identity learned or is it biological?

Researchers at the University of Kent in the UK, led by developmental psychologist Lauren Spinner, investigated this in a recent experiment. The results were published in the journal Sex Roles. In their paper researchers write, “We investigated the impact of stereotypic and counter-stereotypic peers pictured in children’s magazines on children’s gender flexibility around toy play and preferences, playmate choice, and social exclusion behavior.”

They tried to answer the questions: what toys is each sex “supposed” to play with, and how does this affect the child? But this also lends insight into gender itself, and how play leads to skills that children can use later in academics and beyond.

Dr. Spinner and colleagues recruited 82 kids between ages four and seven and showed them pictures from children’s magazines. In them, a child played with a toy either stereotypic or counter-stereotypic to their gender. “In the stereotypic condition, the pictured girl was shown with a toy pony and the pictured boy was shown with a toy car; these toys were reversed in the counter-stereotypic condition,” study authors write.


Children absorb messages about gender throughout childhood through the media, pop culture, and marketing campaigns targeting them. Credit: Getty Images.

In each case, a researcher read a text bubble inside the image. One said, “Hello! My name is Thomas, and every day I like to play with my cars. They’re my favorite toys!” While another exclaimed, “Hello! My name is Sarah, and my favorite toy is My Little Pony! I have lots, and play with them every day.” Afterward, each child was allowed to select a toy to play with. They were offered several gender-specific options, such as a jet fighter, a baby doll, a tea set, and a tool kit.

Those who viewed the counter-stereotypic picture were more open to the idea of girls and boys wanting to play with toys for the opposite gender. When asked whether they themselves wanted to play with Thomas with the pony or Sarah with the car, the children who encountered counter-stereotypic images were more likely to say they did. What didn’t change was the children’s own toy preferences. Overwhelmingly, children preferred more gender-typed toys than counter-gender ones.

“Results revealed significantly greater gender flexibility around toy play and playmate choices among children in the counter-stereotypic condition compared to the stereotypic condition,” write the study authors, “and boys in the stereotypic condition were more accepting of gender-based exclusion than were girls.” This suggests that with more exposure to counter-stereotypic images, children may be more open to playing with a variety of different toys or playmates.


Boys and girls were more comfortable playing together when exposed to counter-stereotypic images. Credit: Getty Images.

At around two or three years old, a child figures out their gender. By four or five, they’re hyper-aware of gender differences and tend to be rigid about them. Then they loosen up about such differences at around age seven. But they still don’t often like to play with opposite-sex playmates. “Children can overcome their anxieties about playing with other-gender children,” Dr. Spinner told the New York Times, “if you can get them to understand there are a lot of similarities in what they like to play with, rather than focusing on the gender of the child.”  

So should we allow children to choose toys from the opposite sex or push them toward toys oriented to their own? Dr. Spinner and colleagues suggest encouraging children to play with toys from both genders because it allows them to develop a range of skills. For instance, while boys’ toys tend to build spacial and tactile skills, girls’ toys tend to build communication and social skills. So it seems those parents who encourage more open-mindedness about gender may be helping children build a greater range of skills, while those more rigid about gender may be inadvertently limiting them.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.