Tree Climbing vs. Tea Parties

The fascinating reasons behind girls' and boys' different styles of play

By Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D.

Watch children at recess in any elementary school playground and you will be struck by stark differences between the girls' and the boys' styles of play. Boys compete, wrestle, and behave in physically challenging ways. Girls talk and listen intently to each other, in pairs or small groups, and encourage one another in cooperative games. And if you travel around the globe visiting playgrounds, an almost identical scene will greet you. In urban, rural or suburban schools in the United States, in France, Turkey, Kenya, and Korea, girls talk and relate, while boys do active things together. One researcher describes girls' friendships as "face-to-face" and boys' as "side-by-side."

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And differences between girls' and boys' group play styles are evident even before they begin school, despite efforts to enforce equal play opportunities. At least a generation or two of enlightened adults have earnestly encouraged boys to try out housekeeping corners, inviting the little guys to engage in dramatic play with domestic themes. At the same time, they have welcomed girls to the block corner, encouraging them to focus on trucks and tools. With some exceptions, children ignore these opportunities to cross culturally defined gender lines. They know what gender they are by the age of 2, so they mimic the behavior of same-sex older kids and adults.

Although children start out playing in mixed gender pairs and groups, that too changes by kindergarten, if not sooner. At school age, children's group play evolves to match their gender identity. Speculation about how much, if anything, biology has to do with it continues, but one thing seems clear: There is no equal opportunity issue here. School-aged kids are first and foremost intent on meeting social expectations. More than anything, they want to have friends and fit in.

Before I am accused of dyed-in-the-wool sexism, I must add that I, as a child, was an exception to most of these generalizations. In the elementary school years, I enjoyed chatting with girl friends, but I could also be found playing sandlot ball with the boys. I am still proud of the fact that I got chosen by team captains ahead of most boys (at least until their growth spurts put a crimp in my athletic supremacy). Yet I was never interested in or invited to participate in the horseplay outside the ball field. I was welcomed for one reason — I could hit, catch and throw a ball.

Individuals vs. Groups

As it turns out, contemporary research reveals that I was not so unique. If we look at children (and adults too) as individuals, not as group members, many of our theories about gender-linked behavior weaken or disappear. For example, we've all heard that boys are more physically aggressive and girls "talk things over" when they disagree. That is quite an accurate observation of children playing in same gender groups. But we now know that many a demure-seeming girl is likely to let loose with physical aggression — if she is convinced no peer is watching. Girls do report admiring other girls who are kind and thoughtful, wanting them for friends; while boys are more inclined to report admiring other boys who are tough and strong, even unacceptably aggressive in adults' eyes. Those are the socially acceptable gender differences. But it is important to remember that such clear temperamental and behavioral differences only hold up when we are observing groups of same-gender children at play. Ask mothers about signs of sensitivity, kindness and gentleness in their sons. Many of those tough guys have a sweet side revealed mainly at home.

The bottom line is what is most important to both girls and boys is fitting in, being accepted by their same-gender peers. But behind that social self, each boy and each girl is unique in temperament and behavioral style. Some girls do prefer quiet doll play to tree climbing or competitive sports. And of course, some boys are more inclined to play board games, build with Lincoln logs, or draw, than wrestle or play competitive games.

Predicting the Future

It is perhaps even more important for us to understand that just because a girl prefers dress-up play to football doesn't mean she is any less likely to become a neurosurgeon, engineer, or explorer when she grows up. What is most likely to influence her future willingness to take positive risks is a quiet sense of having been accepted, valued and enjoyed just as she is, however she is, by her parents. Offering your girl or boy all sorts of opportunities for learning and developing skills in sports, as well as more sedentary activities, is fine. Just take your lead from whatever appeals to each individual child. If she doesn't love crafts or drawing, but does love horseback riding or drama, be proud and encouraging. If she loves basketball or debating and shows less interest in chatting and jumping rope with other girls, be just as proud and encouraging. In most cases, with such parental support, both boys and girls will figure out how to seem "cool" in same-gender groups and still be true to themselves.

This article originally appeared on


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