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

Girl in a toy car. Credit: Getty Images.

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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3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.

Imagine that a health emergency strikes and you need an organ transplant – say, a heart. You get your name on a transplant list, but you find out there's a waiting period of six months. Tens of thousands of people find themselves in this dire situation every year. But 3D printing has the potential to change that forever.

The technology could usher in a future where transplantable organs can be printed not only cheaply, but also to the exact anatomical specifications of each individual patient.

What other innovations could 3D printing bring to medicine and health care? The sky is the limit, according to Dr. Todd Goldstein, a researcher with the corporate venturing arm of Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider and an industry leader in 3D-printing research and development.

"It comes down to what people can think up and dream up what they want to use 3D printing for," Goldstein says. "Ideally, you would hope that 50 years from now you'd have on-demand, 3D printing of organs."

While that's still on the horizon for researchers, 3D printing is already improving lives by revolutionizing medicine in three key areas.

​Printing realistic, customized organ models

3D printers can take images from MRI, PET, sonography or other technologies and convert them into life-size, three-dimensional models of patients' organs. These models serve as hands-on visualization tools that help surgeons plan the best approaches for complex procedures.

They also allow doctors to customize patient-specific models prior to surgery. For example, Northwell employs 3D printing in several clinical applications:

  • Tumor resection models clearly highlight the tumor and surrounding tissue
  • Orthopedic models are useful for pre-surgery measuring and medical device adjustments
  • Vascular models identify malformations in organs, tumors, sliced chambers, blood flow, valves, muscle tissue, and calcifications
  • Dentistry oral implants and appliances can be created in just one day, significantly reducing wait periods for Northwell dentists and their patients

Using realistic models not only delivers better health results but also shortens operating times. That gives patients less time under anesthesia, and hospitals potential savings of millions of dollars over just a few years.

Being able to visualize procedures before they occur also helps to comfort patients and their families. Take, for instance, the case of Barnaby Goberdhan, a man who discovered that his young son, Isaiah, had an aggressive tumor in his palate. Goberdhan met with Neha A. Patel, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Cohen Children's Medical Center, a Northwell Health hospital, to discuss the procedure and learn about it with help from a 3D-printed model.

"Having a 3D printed depiction of my son was really helpful when talking with the doctor about his surgery," said Mr. Goberdhan. "The doctor was able to do more than talk me through what they were going to do – Dr. Patel showed me. There is almost nothing more frightening and stressful than having your child go through surgery. There were several options Dr. Patel walked us through for the best way to preserve Isaiah's teeth and prevent additional cuts within his mouth. I wanted all of my questions answered so I could be less fearful and more prepared to talk my son through what he was about to face. I wanted Isaiah to feel prepared. With the 3D model, we both felt more at ease."

For years, 3D printing surgical models was prohibitively expensive. Now, more affordable systems such as Formlabs' Form Cell give more hospitals across the country access to the technology in order to produce realistic, patient-specific models, usually within one day.

3D-printed prosthetics

Credit: Northwell Health

While 3D-printed organs are a long way in the future, today's technology is well suited for manufacturing prosthetics. 3D-printed prosthetics are often remarkably more affordable and personalized than their traditional counterparts. That's a big deal for many families, especially those with children who outgrow prosthetics and are forced to buy new ones.

One recent breakthrough in 3D-printed prosthetics came when Dan Lasko, a former Marine who lost the lower part of his left leg in Afghanistan, wanted the ability to swim with his prosthetic leg. Wearing prosthetics in water has been possible for years, but they typically slow swimmers down. No device had been able to go seamlessly from land to water or to help propel its wearer through the water.

To fix that, Northwell Health recently funded a project that developed The Fin – the world's first truly amphibious prosthetic. With The Fin, Lasko and his family can go straight into the pool from the locker room – or the diving board.

"I got back in the pool with my two young sons and for the first time was able to dive into the pool with them," Lasko said.

3D-printed prosthetics will help improve the daily lives of the nearly 2 million Americans who've lost a limb. That's promising because the increasing prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is expected to greatly increase the number of amputees in the U.S., according to a study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

​3D bioprinting

For years, 3D printers have manufactured various products: phone cases, toys, and even operational guns. To produce these objects, the machines heat a raw material, typically plastic, and build the object layer-by-layer according to a particular design.

3D bioprinting, a young field developed by researchers with Northwell Health, may someday perform the same process but instead with living cells in a raw material called bioink.

Daniel A. Grande, director at the Orthopedic Research Laboratory in the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, an arm of Northwell Health, said he and his team first pursued 3D bioprinting by modifying 3D printers so they'd accept living cells.

"My initial concept of 3D printing was early studies that looked at modifying ink-jet printers, where we incorporate a bioink that includes cells within a delivery vehicle," Grande says. "That hydrogel can then be polymerized, or hardened, upon heat or UV-light stimulation, so that we can actually make a complex structure, three-dimensionally, that incorporates living cells. The hardened hydro-gel is then able to keep the cells alive and viable. It's also biocompatible, so it can be safely implanted in humans."

It's a promising enterprise, and it can radically change how we experience medical care.

"3D bioprinting's potential is almost limitless and has the potential to replace many different parts of the human body," says Michael J. Dowling, president, and chief executive officer at Northwell Health. "Researchers envision a future with 3D printers in every emergency room, where doctors are able to print emergency implants of organs and bones on demand and revolutionize the way medicine is practiced."

Dr. Todd Goldstein explains more about 3D bioprinting below:

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.


In his book Health Care Reboot, Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, argues that "[the United States] is constructing a solid foundation upon which the new American health care is being erected." To those steeped in news of health care's administrative bloat, under-performing primary care, and low levels of insurance coverage, such a thesis may seem bold, wishful, or downright delusional.

But Dowling does not ignore the health care system's need for improvement. Rather, he believes that contemporary trends can foster such improvement if we recognize their value. He cites advances and disruptions in areas such as consolidation, education, payment reform, and mental health to support his progressive view that "better, safer, and more accessible care" is coming.

Among those trends is big tech's move into health care, or as Dowling puts it, technology may soon move us into the age of smart medicine.

Medical tech marvels

Dowling sees big tech's stride into health care as coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology. On the medical technology front, the technology available to doctors has accelerated at an unprecedented pace, resulting in tools and techniques that are "the stuff of Star Wars."

"Some of the most advanced technology tools ever developed in any field are in use to care for patients. Look at any modern operating room or intensive care unit, and the technology to treat patients and keep them alive is remarkable," writes Dowling.

To pick one of many examples, Northwell Health's Cohen Children's Medical Center was the first pediatric program on Long Island to institute ROSA, a "robotic operating surgical assistant." Before ROSA, children suffering epilepsy would have to undergo a full craniotomy to target and monitor areas of seizure activity. With ROSA's assistance, surgeons can get the same results through a minimally invasive procedure, reducing the risk of infection and strain on the patient.

Even technology not designed for therapy has been co-opted to play small, yet supportive, roles in quotidian treatment. A study out of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles found that virtual reality can help reduce a child's anxiety and stress during basic procedures such as a blood draw.

Information tech plays catch up

Photo: Sisacorn / Shutterstock

Dowling characterizes the information technology front as "less impressive," pointing to the well-known difficulties of onboarding electronic health records. Beyond concerns of cybersecurity and interoperability, such systems have caused widespread burnout and dissatisfaction among practitioners thanks to their time consumption and complicated workflows.

But progress is being made. Apple recently added a Health Records app to its iPhone, giving patients from 39 health systems access to their medical records.

"This existing new reality is that a fat file, that until recently was stored away unavailable to the patient, now sits in its entirety on the patient's phone," writes Dowling. "For patients with chronic conditions who make frequent use of medical services, this leap forward enables them, whether a mile from their doctor's office or a thousand miles, to track and share with their doctor essential data on blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and scores of other important clinical markers."

But to succeed, this information must be gatherable, accessible, and understandable to any patient. Big tech will need to streamline such systems for maximum user-friendliness, all while keeping operations on a device with which patients and practitioners are intimately familiar.

That device will be the smartphone and tablet. 77 percent of Americans own smartphones. Among Americans over 65 years of age — the demographic most in need of such advancements — 46 percent own a smartphone, a number that is likely to climb.

Big tech's vision of integrating information technology with health care is some ways off. Much experimenting must be done, and big tech needs to better collaborate with traditional health care stakeholders. Even so, these incipient steps may lead to a framework where practitioners can gather more data more quickly and with greater ease, while patients become partners, not passive recipients, of their health care team.

Accelerating value-based care

In the United States, value-based health care exists today as a should-we, could-we debate topic. Big tech's entry into the field could push value-based care closer to practice. As noted on the health care blog Tech Prescribed, integrating improved data acquisition with AI-powered platforms could turn value-based care into a manageable venture.

"As a result, we will see the move to VBC accelerate even further as more firms turn a profit through this business model. Good news for docs — this will make you the primary customer for provider technology and really improve your user experience as a side effect," writes Colton Ortolf of Tech Prescribed.

The Northwell Health entity Pharma Ventures was created both in response to collaborating with big pharma and as a means to promote value-based care. Pharma Ventures was designed "to link drug prices to drug performance" and "to serve as a super-site for clinical trials." The goal is to drive down costs while simultaneously improving patient experience. Such an initiative is only possible due to Northwell's integrated systems and system-wide electronic health records.

Entering the smart age of medicine

For Dowling, health care in the United States is laying an important foundation for the medicine of tomorrow. We're moving away from the view that health care is something the patient receives at a medical facility. Soon, health care will see the patient take an active role alongside a team of health care providers.

"The new American medicine is proactive and has physicians working in teams with nurses and other caregivers to reach out to patients and guide them along a pathway to health and wellbeing," writes Dowling.

By creating new machines, proliferating information, and making that information easier to obtain, big tech's dive into health care will be a fundamental element in this upcoming paradigm shift.