Are patterns of play different for boys and girls?

The question of whether boys and girls play differently from one another has got to be one of the most popular parenting topics of the ages. It’s the question of “nature versus nurture” that has confounded psychologists and fascinated parents for decades.

As parents, how much do we influence our children’s activities and how they choose to play? Do we subconsciously choose activities, toys and games that we think are appropriate for our children’s gender? Or do children choose for themselves based on hard-wired, biological differences?

The answer is that we still don’t know, and much more research is needed. But we can say that little boys and girls are much more alike than they are different. While there may be a pink aisle and a blue aisle at the toy shop, that doesn’t mean that patterns of play are vastly different between the sexes.

And these days, thankfully there’s far less pressure for children to live up to old-fashioned gender stereotypes – like boys being brave and active, and girls being delicate and caring, for instance.

As a parent, it’s up to you about how much significance you place on gender differences. All patterns of play can be observed in all children, but social and cultural factors can certainly have an effect on your child’s play preferences, and the tools they use to explore their fascinations.

For example, with Enclosing/Enveloping, you may find some children will enclose themselves in tents or superhero suits, and explore Trajectory through sword or gun play, swooshing, chasing and jumping. Whereas, others might wrap babies or toys and put them to bed, or push them in buggies or swings. Their games might be about fairies or mermaids for example, and they might swoosh wands rather than swords. Or you may find your child combines a mixture of these activities in their own special way!

We can help them to express their unique blend of behaviours and learning styles by giving them lots of choices. For example, we can consider the impact of TV or movie characters they might be exposed to. How do they move, act and influence the world? Modern heroes like Disney’s Moana are challenging gender-based stereotypes. We can dress our children, regardless of gender, in clothes that allow them to explore diverse play options and express themselves with energy, vigour and messiness (adult standards of cleanliness and presentation need not apply!).

Finding diverse ways to encourage our children’s individual expressions of patterns of play, whether they seem to be tied to gender or not, deserves careful consideration for each child. If you’ve ever been mystified by your little one’s fascination with repeating certain actions while playing, you’re not alone! If you’re curious to identify what kind of patterns of play your child is using to learn about the world, check out our other articles.