One of the things people email me wanting to know about most often is “what does the research say about how to set up a play room? What toys should I buy that will have the greatest benefit for my child’s learning and development?” I’d actually been putting off doing this episode for a while, in part because the research base on this topic is thin on the ground – but also because the idea just made me kind of uncomfortable. I mean, we’ve survived for tens of thousands of years without play rooms – or even dedicated toys, never mind the incredibly beautiful and expensive ones that are available now! – what could I really say about this? Well, now’s the time. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise you that this episode is coming in the middle of our series on the intersection of money and parenting. I hope it offers you some reassurance about how to set up your own play room – if you choose to and are able to. And even more reassurance if you choose not to or can’t.
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This episode is the second in a series on the intersection of parenting and money. You can find other episodes in this series:
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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re covering a topic that listeners have been asking for for ages, which is How to Set Up a Play Room.
And if you hear some trepidation in my voice, it’s because there’s a lot of it in me. And if you think it’s an incredible coincidence that this episode is coming hot on the heels of a couple of episodes exploring children and consumerism then…I’m sorry to say that this is not a coincidence. I was uncomfortable enough with the topic that I felt I really couldn’t do this episode without covering those other topics as well as a counterpoint.
The main reason I’m uncomfortable is, of course, even having the wherewithal to ask the question “how do I set up a child’s play room” represents an absolutely enormous amount of privilege. It says that the person asking the question has so many resources that they can devote an entire room in their house to nothing but a child’s play, and on top of this, they have enough resources to equip the room with a sizeable proportion of whatever toys I suggest that the scientific literature says are necessary to bring about a positive outcome for their child.
But when my listeners ask for something I do try my best to deliver. So here we go!
While we’ve discussed the benefits of play on the show before in an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, who is the Director of the National Institute for Play, we haven’t specifically looked at toys and play, or the role of parents in play. And it turns out that the concept of parents getting involved in children’s play, or directing children’s play, or providing materials for children’s play is something that’s pretty much unique to Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic (or WEIRD) countries – plus Japan as well, and possibly China is heading in this direction too.
For ethnographic evidence on this topic we look to our old friend Dr. David Lancy, who gathered hundreds of ethnographic studies on child development in his book The Anthropology of Childhood. Dr. Lancy reports that Sisala parents in Ghana regard an interest in children’s play as beneath their dignity. Even the face-to-face position where the baby is held facing the mother that is so common in Western cultures is very rare elsewhere. Western scholars consider talking to and playing with the infant essential to promote the bond between mother and infant, but this activity is rare in many cultures as well – the !Kung people who live on the western edge of the Kalahari Desert not only don’t play with their children but believe the practice may be harmful to the child’s development because children learn best without adult intervention. Gusii children in Kenya may try to get their mother to play or talk but will be ignored, because the mother believes that responding would be simply pointless, as the child is not a valid human being until it reaches the age of ‘sense,’ at around six or seven.
A little closer to home, interaction between Mexican children tends to take place through shared work activity, rather than child-centered play. All of these approaches are in stark contrast to the recommendations provided to parents in Western countries – the American Academy of Pediatrics’ clinical report on this topic is called The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds – implying that play has some kind of unique qualities in promoting these parent-child bonds that can’t be replaced by other activities, when anthropological evidence shows that this bonding can occur through other kinds of activities like shared work as well.
Dr. Lancy goes on to try to understand the gulf between societies where mothers simply don’t play with children and those where the absence of play between mothers and children is seen as an indicator of clinical abnormality. He sees the discrepancy as primarily driven by differing parental goals – rather than needing to keep the child out of the way or involve them in productive work as soon as possible, Western parents are responsible for developing literate children who have high levels of concentration, self-discipline, emotional self-control, persistence in the face of failure, cooperation with others, attention to adults and to the material that adults deem it necessary for children to learn so they can be successful in school. Dr. Lancy says that “mothers carefully control the toy inventory to facilitate these lessons as well as expose their children to the artifacts of schooling, such as letters, numbers, colors, and “staying within the lines.” In several Asian cultures parents also use play didactically to socialize the child to restrain its own desires and adopt a cooperative and deferential attitude toward others. A failure to achieve these goals brings scorn on the parents and humiliation for the mother, and could have a materially negative result for the parents if they don’t instill enough filial piety and gratitude in the child that will prompt the child to care for the parents for the remainder of their lives and beyond.
In addition to school readiness, parents manage children’s play for other reasons, like living vicariously through their children’s experiences in sports, as we segregate players by age and deliberately develop their skills and self-confidence. A hundred years ago, children would manage their own games, not worrying who wins and who loses, or even if the game is finished.
So it’s against this rather strange backdrop – where play is found to be something that children from most cultures enjoy, even if they aren’t permitted to do it much, contrasted with Western cultures where parents organize and direct the materials of play and the actual games themselves, that we situate this episode on how to set up a child’s playroom.
Before we get into the toys themselves, for those of you who haven’t listened to Episode 57, What is the Value of Play, for a while, let’s just do a really quick review of the evidence on the benefits of play. And they are many. We can count improvements in executive functioning, including cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory, as well as language development, early math skills, social development, peer relations, physical development and health, creativity, reasoning about hypothetical events, and an enhanced sense of agency. If we think back to the introduction to this episode, we can see how well these skills line up with our goal to raise children who are successful in school. A number of these studies do look at play outside of the parent-child relationship, and some specifically look at play where children are provided with objects and “minimal adult direction,” and find more creative play where adults aren’t standing over the child – or maybe even sitting next to the child – telling the child what to do.
This also brings us to an important definition about what play is – while different scholars use different definitions, one of the most commonly agreed upon criteria is that play doesn’t seem to serve any apparent immediate purpose – children engage in it just for the sake of it, because it’s fun. If an adult is trying to ‘teach’ the child something then it isn’t play – in fact, some researchers see the presence of a ‘minimally intrusive adult’ as a contextual cue to play. So *play* is important and useful to children (although play itself may not be inherently critical to children’s development), but what about individual toys? Is there any evidence looking at the impact of the number or types of toys that are available to a child and the child’s outcomes?
Most of our children are fortunate enough to own toys; in one ethnography of 32 families’ homes in Los Angeles published in 2012, the authors reported that family homes had an average of 139 toys visible to researchers, with most homes having at least 100 and some as many as 250.
The researchers didn’t specifically note the presence or absence of play rooms, but the book does include hundreds of absolutely fascinating photos, many of them photos of the material clutter that sometimes seems to threaten to take over our homes, and noted that “it is not unusual to also find kids’ art and Disney-themed images in public rooms of homes, giving them a very child-centered look that would have been rare during the middle decades of the twentieth century, when there was far more emphasis on presentation and formality in the living room, dining room, and even kitchen areas.”
And how much does all this children’s stuff cost? Well, the U.S. in the mid-2000s we spent about $24 billion on toys each year, with $3.1 billion specifically for infant and preschool toys. The average family spent about $240 on toys and games each year, and grandparents spent $500 each year on gifts for grandchildren. But the most telling statistic to me is that the U.S. represents 3.1% of the world’s children, but 40% of the global toy market.
So children have toys. But how are they used in the home?
One researcher visited a set of 18 mother/infant pairs once a month when the infants were aged between 1 month and 18 months – so yes, this is definitely a small sample size, but the extended visits with each family (rather than dragging them into a lab and telling them to play “as you would at home”) and duration of the visits over 18 months yielded some really interesting information. The researcher, Dr. Doris Pierce, did this study for her dissertation in Occupational Therapy, and she was interested in learning more about “the relatively unrecognized work that mothers do in managing the play objects and play spaces of infant toddlers in the home,” which she says is “critical to child development” – because occupational therapists so rarely encounter the child in their home environment and so don’t have much understanding of how the techniques they prescribe are actually used in the home. Dr. Pierce saw mothers as “the stage managers behind the play scene in the home;” constantly engaged in positioning the infant and toddler for play, selecting toys, setting up the play space, monitoring for safety, and controlling access to areas of the home. It’s work that requires judgement, decision making, and ongoing manipulations of the physical environment – and when you put it in terms like that, suddenly it makes it much clearer to me why we feel so exhausted at the end of the day when as far as an outsider is concerned, we haven’t really “done” anything.
Dr. Pierce found that new mothers often rely heavily on the messages from commercial toy manufacturers to make toy selections, and used these to try to make sure their child had access to as many toys that can aid their development. First time mothers were more likely to fit into this category, and have ideas about what they ‘ought’ to buy, although these opinions were often based on the design, labeling, and marketing of toys. But another group of mothers, who often had less money available to spend on toys, tended to let their children mainly play with household objects and told Dr. Pierce that they didn’t believe commercial toys were important in the infant’s life. I thought there was some interesting rationalizations going on there on both sides – parents who could afford toys rationalized their decision to buy them by saying it was in their child’s best interest, while parents who didn’t have money rationalized their inability to buy toys by saying they didn’t believe toys were important for children’s development. More experienced mothers often had a store of outgrown toys from previous children, and were better able to offer an appropriate toy at the right age for the child, a puzzle that first time mothers sometimes struggled with. It seemed like the primary way mothers decided that the child had developmentally moved on from the toy was when the mother found she could no longer leave the child with the toy and expect the child to be entertained while she did housework nearby. The mothers would often rotate the toy selection to try to maintain the child’s interest so she could step away and get the work done around the house that our culture requires be completed.
Once the children became mobile, the kitchen cupboards often became an important source of toys – particularly while the mother was cooking or washing the dishes, and then as the child matured into a toddler toys like shape sorters, books, puzzles, and other educational toys made an appearance in at least the upper income homes. Dr. Pierce noted that it was usually the mother who tried to engage the child in play with these toys, rather than the child playing with them independently. Of course, this kind of interaction is deeply embedded in our culture as well – when we play try to engage our child with an educational toy we are passing on a message about who holds knowledge and who needs to develop knowledge, and that what the adult knows is valuable and what the child knows or discovers by themselves may be less valuable, and that children should listen to what adults are telling them. All of these lessons are preparing children for success in school, where they must learn that it doesn’t really matter what questions they have, that providing the correct answer to a question that someone else has deemed important is what constitutes ‘knowledge.’
I want to add a side note about something that I’ve wondered about and that may have been bugging you as well – we have a number of toys made from recycled plastics in our house and I know from my work in sustainability consulting that chemicals in plastics – and particularly recycled plastics are not amazing for our health. Pthalates are added to plastic toys to increase flexibility and durability, but have also been shown to have negative impacts on liver, kidney, and reproductive systems. Experiments in rats have found that two kinds of phthalates increased the incidence of many reproductive malformations by more than 50% and reduced the size of men’s testicles. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers were freely added to toys before the year 2007, when new regulations restricted the amount that could be in each toy; this chemical has thryroid disrupting properties. But now we’re not using that we’re using phosphate flame retardants instead, which are neurotoxic and carcinogenic. And you might be asking what these chemicals are doing in toys; the answer is that they were added to the plastic for whatever its original use was, and they stay in the plastic when it’s melted down and reshaped into a toy. So it seems as though yes, these chemicals are very much present in toys – but just the presence of a chemical isn’t the only thing that matters. As the saying goes, “it’s the dose that makes the poison” – and the news on this front may be as depressing as it is reassuring – even if children put toys made from recycled plastics in their mouths, the amount of exposure to these chemicals they get is an order of magnitude lower than the exposure they received through breast milk. And as they get older, the exposure they get through touching toys with their hands and then putting their hands in their mouths is TWO orders of magnitude lower than their exposure to the chemicals through household dust. So it’s good news that worrying about chemicals in toys made from recycled plastic shouldn’t be our top priority – because due to the way we’re living our lives our children are getting exposed to these chemicals anyway.
Once the toys are in the house, Dr. Pierce found that it was usually primarily the mother’s role to offer the toys to the child, and as the child got older this shifted to arranging the toys for the child’s use – and this was the defining factor in the infant’s experience of the home no matter whether the family had a lot of money and lived in a large home or had less money and lived in a small home. Each home play space was unique, but the most common arrangement was that toys were most highly concentrated next to the kitchen, where the mother spent the most time working.
And, of course, this way of organizing the home – and the play space – is highly unusual in the rest of the world. We do see parallels in Japan where mothers often find themselves isolated in high rise apartments with their infant while the husband goes to work, but the home filled with hard surfaces, sharp corners, electricity, and tiny objects everywhere, and only one adult is available for the vast majority of the day to keep them safe, keep the home tidy, and play with the child is something that people in many cultures would think is absolutely batty.
In Dr. Pierce’s study toys most commonly entered the house through the mother’s purchases at toy stores, although six of the 18 infants in the study also had a toys mailed to them every six weeks from a club that had been promoted in a parent magazine. With only one exception in 18, the child’s first birthday gift included at least one large wheeled push toy or riding toy. Visiting relatives often brought gifts, maternal aunts gave outgrown toys, and maternal grandmothers would pass on toys the mothers themselves had played with as infants in a symbol of the importance of the family being extended for another generation. So we can see that the mother – but also the toy industry, family, and friends all play a role in determining the number and types of toys available.
The French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bordieu talked about an idea which also came up in Dr. Allison Pugh’s work on consumerism, although I didn’t have time to discuss it with her, and that’s the idea that parents have cultural capital like knowledge, taste, and ways of speaking that children internalize without consciously thinking about them. One of the ways this knowledge is passed on to children is through the toys we give them to play with. So when we buy the authentic $100 Grimm’s rainbow that was cut from a single, solid piece of Linden wood and matches the peg doll and Large Element Stacker accessories, we’re saying to our child: “these things matter.” Children aren’t born with knowledge about what we consider to be markers of quality, or of high culture, which is why they often favor toys that middle class parents think are blingy and crass, and initially, at least, they don’t see the $21.99 knockoff rainbow stacking toy as any less than the one that costs five times the price. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it if you already own the $100 version – or the $21.99 version – but I want to bring it to the surface that we are transmitting a cultural message to our child with the toys we purchase and the ways we play with them.
When we think about what types of toys we should offer our children, I look to some early studies in the 1970s and 80s in which researchers were interested in the impact of toys on peer interactions in a preschool environment. Blocks and pretend play props were found to inspire more frequent and cooperative social activity, whereas ‘‘cognitively oriented’’ toys, such as puzzles, were found to prompt solitary play. Other researchers looked at the effects of highly realistic toys— pretend play props, toy cars, or miniature people and compared these with nonrealistic ones like blocks, rubber shapes, or paper towel rolls. The findings of these studies were uniform: Younger preschoolers were most likely to pretend play with realistic-looking props rather than the generic types of tubes and blocks and scarves that popular wisdom tells parents are preferable because they can be transformed into anything the child imagines. Older preschoolers were more likely to pretend play with non-realistic items, so long as realistic props were also available. Children age five and older engaged in highly symbolic play with nonrealistic objects, even when realistic toys were not present. More recent studies examined the symbolic level of children’s play with two common preschool construction toys—blocks and LEGOs. Both of these building materials were found to prompt numerous symbolic activities in play and the complexity of building was found to predict reading and mathematics abilities later in school.
One really interesting study from 2012 made several kinds of toys available for several days in the classroom, and looked to see how creatively the children played with each kind of toy. Some of the toys, like Duplo bricks, Rainbow People, and sand castle buckets received highest play quality scores on the first day they were used, while others like bristle blocks and wooden trains got highest scores on the second day. Scores tended to decline slightly by the fourth day, except for a Shape, Model, and Mold set which had its highest scores on the fourth day. In general, Duplo bricks and Rainbow People inspired higher quality play than other toys. These toys shared some characteristics – they’re nonrealistic, so they don’t suggest play themes. Rainbow People are people, but they’re simple, multicolored human figures without features that can be make-believe people of any gender or sorted or stacked like construction toys. And this, of course, is in compete opposition to the earlier findings we just discussed which found higher quality play with more realistic toys.
This study also found that children don’t always play most often with the toys that engage them in high quality play – the Rainbow People toys promoted high quality play, but weren’t chosen often. Toys with moderate play quality scores were selected more often. The researchers also found differences between the quality of play with different toys by children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, which points to a potential methodological problem in other studies, which often find lower play quality in children from families of low socio-economic status. These authors wondered whether the toy selection by other researchers might be driving these so-called deficits in poor children, and if different toys had been selected there might be no deficit at all and in fact the poor children might have had higher quality play than children from well-off families.
Regarding the number of toys available to children, a group of occupational therapy researchers gave children access to either four toys or sixteen toys, and timed how long they played and what kinds of play they engaged in, and found that children played longer and played with toys in a greater variety of ways, although we are talking two minutes rather than one minute here, which is hardly the length of time parents are probably hoping for when they hear the description of this study. The researchers concluded that an environment that presents fewer distractions may help toddlers to “exercise their intrinsic attention capabilities” and that young children can “benefit from attention training.” I’m sure you can hear the alarm bells that were ringing in my head when I read this; I immediately thought of Dr. Barbara Rogoff’s work, which looked at how families work in places like the highlands of Guatemala, where rather than training their children to pay attention to one thing, parents train their children to pay attention to many things at once. I’ll never forget the description of the child who was given a busywork task while researchers taught their older sibling how to do something; the younger children were able to do the busywork while keeping half an eye on what else was going on in the room and took much less time to learn the task than their sibling did. The contrast between this and the way we raise children was really brought home to me during a brief period when my then 3-year-old took some swimming lessons – the lesson was 30 minutes long and there were six children in each lesson. So each child was getting five minutes of direct teaching from the instructor in each class, and while it wasn’t their turn they weren’t paying any attention to what the child who was receiving instruction was learning but were goofing around at the side of the pool waiting for their turn. So all this focus on paying attention to one thing at a time is interesting…but I would argue that it isn’t the only way to learn, and that by giving it so much weight we are ignoring the capabilities of children who don’t pay attention to one thing at a time but rather take in lots of things going on around them – even if they might appear distracted by Western standards.
OK, so there are two more main topics that I want to cover here before we draw all this together. The first of these is electronic toys, and the second is gendered toys.
So let’s do electronic toys first – and these do really get a bad rep in the literature. The main reason for this is because even though advertisers tell us that technology is going to make our children into geniuses, and many of us tell researchers in surveys that we believe that technology is going to make our children into geniuses, there is no evidence for this at all, and that’s why the Federal Trade Commission required Disney to refund the purchase price of up to four Baby Einstein DVDs per family that were sold during the period when Disney used the word “educational” to market them, although even after this slap on the wrist the Baby Einstein website still described its videos with phrases like “reinforces number recognition using simple patterns” or “introduces circles, ovals, triangles, squares and rectangles.”
Researchers think that the reason play is more effective than videos at promoting learning is that toys serve as a focus for joint attention, which is a fancy way of saying they’re something you can talk about together, even if one of you is only babbling. Even when parent and child are playing together with an electronic toy, the mother’s responding and teaching behavior tends to be less positive and they are marginally less encouraging than when they play with non-electronic toys. The researchers concluded that since parental responsiveness is an important precursor of child self-regulation, even playing together with electronic toys may compromise children’s socio-emotional development, and since these toys may limit children’s and parents’ ability to play in new ways and may prompt the parent to be more directive during play, this could also interfere with the child’s learning process.
So to this I would say three things. Firstly, playing with electronic toys is probably not going to turn your child into a genius. Secondly, not every single second your child spends in the day needs to be in service of turning your child into a genius. If your child likes playing with electronic toys then there’s no harm in them spending some of their time doing this. And finally, no, sitting in front of the TV is probably not as good for your child’s development as human interactions. But as long as your child is also getting time running around outside and interacting with you at other points during the day, there’s really no evidence that your child spending a little bit of time alone in front of the TV without discussing every plot twist with you is going to do your child any harm – especially if it gives you enough of a mental break that you’re able to be a more effective parent when you come back together.
And one final point on electronic toys – researchers have started to look at parents’ concerns about internet-connected toys, and it turns out we’re actually mostly not too concerned about it, even though a number of these toys can actually record what our children are saying (and potentially what other people around the children are saying as well) and transmit that data to the toy manufacturers. The general consensus among parents seems to be that these toys have fewer capabilities than Siri or Alexa so there’s probably more potential danger there. But do be aware that if you buy toys connected to the internet that someone is probably monitoring whatever audio or video the toy is collecting, and if the device has a password associated with it I’d recommend changing that from the factory default because otherwise they’re pretty easy to hack so anyone can intercept your communications.
So the last big topic I want to cover here is on gender-stereotyped toys, and the way this plays out depends on how you think about where gender comes from. As we learned when we talked with Dr. Diane Ehrensaft a few months ago about gender-creative children, it has become common in our society to think of gender as a binary thing child is born with – which is why the first question we ask when we find out someone is pregnant is “are you having a boy or a girl?” – because those are the only two options. But to some extent we seem to be coming more into line with how people from other cultures think about gender, which is that it is not binary, so a person is not EITHER a boy OR a girl but falls somewhere on the spectrum between those extremes, and that it isn’t a quality they’re born with but something that they figure out for themselves as they live their lives. (And if you missed that episode and all of this is coming out of left field for you, I want to make sure you see the distinction between sex and gender, because sex is determined by what genitals you have while gender is about how you express your social and cultural identity. For many people there is an alignment between their sex (or genitals) and gender (or social identity), but for some people there is not.
So if we believe in this way of thinking about gender, then we are thinking about gender as what is called a social construction, which means it isn’t inherent to ourselves but is formed as we negotiate our place in the world. And if it isn’t inherent to ourselves it can be shaped, and pretty often we as parents do try to shape our children’s gender – often through the toys we give them and the ways we play with them. (Although my impression is that parents who believe that gender is essential to our nature are very likely to give their children highly gender-specific toys. I assume they’re doing it because they think it isn’t appropriate for boys, for example, to play with dolls, but if gender is essential and a boy is going to be a boy no matter what toys he plays with, why don’t these parents allow their children access to all kinds of toys?)
But anyway, how does this process of socializing gender work? Parents play differently with their differently gendered children – parents tend to play with male toddlers in a more physical and rough way, while they tend to be more gentle with female toddlers and do more things like pretending and playing house. And when researchers put parents and infants into playrooms with gender-typed toys, parents – and especially fathers – are more likely to choose gender-typical toys for their babies and respond positively to their child playing with gender-typical toys. It’s like the experiment we learned about in our episode with Dr. Christia Brown where the researchers dressed a baby in traditionally girls’ clothes and experimental subjects said “oh, what a cute baby! You’re so sweet!” and they dressed the same baby in traditionally boys’ clothes and the subjects said “oh, what a strong baby! Look at those muscles!”.
And on the toy front, while infants do tend to be attracted to new things (which is why a new toy will engage them while mother is making dinner), they are also attracted to familiar things, using a combination of factors like how long they were initially exposed to the new thing, the length of delay following the exposure, as well as factors individual to each child. So when parents present a boy child with a truck and offer pleasant stimulation like cooing and affectionate touching, and parent and child share joint attention focused on the truck, and children use the information they’re getting from their parents’ voices and faces to understand “this is a truck, and my parent thinks this is an appropriate toy for me, and I trust my parent so I’m going to believe that this is an appropriate toy for me.” As these kinds of interactions are repeated over time, the parent helps to shape the child’s preferences toward specific toys and kinds of toys.
In one sample of 2-10-year-old girls, two of the most popular toys were ones typically considered to be toys for boys, and in some experiments the researchers have had to eliminate some of these male-typed toys from the set that their subjects are allowed to choose from because they were too popular with girls. Around middle childhood, girls often develop an interest in male-typed toys and activities and shun female typed ones. So we have to ask ourselves, “why is this?” And researchers speculate that it’s the age at which children are beginning to become more consciously aware about something that they may have only implicitly understood until that point, which is our society’s preference for anything associated with males. We learned about this in our interview with Dr. Carol Gilligan, where she told us about how our patriarchal system privileges anything related to being a masculine male over everything and everyone else, including gay men, transgendered people, any men exhibiting qualities that are traditionally considered more feminine, and, of course, all women. This is why it’s OK for girls to learn coding and math and science and wear pants and play team sports and do things that are considered typically ‘masculine’ activities, even though there’s no reason in the world WHY these activities should be considered ‘masculine,’ and we so rarely give our boys dolls or tea sets or do pretend play with them or encourage them to consider careers in the caring professions. So when we read stories to our girls and adjust the pronouns so not *all* the interesting characters are boys, my view is that we’re not really helping the situation. It would be more useful to help our girls question WHY all the interesting characters in books are boys, but also question why the boy characters so rarely go to their fathers when they need a hug, or play with dolls, or be a nurse.
We tend to think that children’s gender is one or the other unless it’s proven otherwise, and we have prescribed ways to respond to children of that gender that we don’t even realize we’re doing. As Dr. Brown also told us, there are more differences *between children of the same gender* than there are across genders. So to put that into different words, about 30% of girls are more aggressive than the ‘average’ boy. And it’s not like lots of small differences ‘add up’ to two essentially different masculine and feminine psychological profiles – different characteristics that we consider to be traditionally masculine and feminine are only really weakly intercorrelated, if at all. I’ll put a link on this episode’s page to a picture that Brian Stout, whom I chatted with in the episode on patriarchy in parenting, introduced me to, which lists out characteristics that are traditionally considered masculine and feminine. And I consider myself to be a woman, but the majority of the characteristics on that list that really resonated with me were on the ‘masculine’ list – things like responsibility, focus, logical, disciplined, and capable. And most of my traits that are less helpful to me are also on the traditionally masculine side – and yet I also have some traditionally feminine traits like creativity and flow. But there’s no reason why these traits should be considered ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – we ALL have a unique mix of these traits and if we celebrated that uniqueness and allowed each individual to express whatever group of them they have, it seems to me that a lot of people’s lives would be a lot easier and more fulfilling. It made me think of a thread started by LGBT rights activist Alexander Leon that’s been going around on Twitter on the day I’m writing this episode, which says “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation and prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us and which parts we’ve created to protect us.” As someone who is doing a lot of this unpicking myself at the moment, I can tell you for sure that this work that we parents do to accept our children for who they are instead of the roles they fulfil is SO IMPORTANT.
And so what does this kind of acceptance mean in real life? As an example, it means accepting and embracing when our girls want to celebrate their feminine, princess side. I’m absolutely guilty of not always doing this myself – I took my 5-year-old to the consignment store to pick out a Halloween costume last year and let her pick through the rack in her size, she pulled out a princess dress to try on and I held my breath for a minute – and I only exhaled when she ultimately decided to be a cheeseburger instead.
And why is this? Why does the princess narrative make me so nervous? There are two strands of research that are relevant to us here. The first finds that watching Disney princess videos is associated with more female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later, even after controlling for initial levels of gender-stereotypical behavior. As I mentioned a few minutes ago it’s not the stereotypical female behavior that I find problematic, but rather that other research has shown that children who grow up with this more stereotypical behavior are more likely to choose not to explore outside or play certain games to avoid getting dirty. Grown women who self-identified as ‘princesses’ gave up more easily on a challenging task, were less likely to want to work, and were more focused on superficial qualities. Once again, if my daughter wants to use makeup and be a stay-at-home mom (and when her grandmother asked her over the holiday break what she wants to be when she grows up she actually pointed to me and said “a mom”) then that’s fine, but what’s not fine is that she does those things because she thinks they’re the only options available to her.
And the other strand of research is one that might sound familiar if you’ve listened to the interview with Dr. Allison Pugh, where we talk about the meaning that children create with their toys, and that we create along with them. Yes, the Disney princess brand persona is, as one researcher says, “a friendly, always-beautiful, self-sacrificing ingenue on her way to a happily-ever-after with an attractive hero,” but our children DON’T just take the toys and messages that companies sell them and swallow these whole. In fact, it may be the messages WE provide that are just as important. I’m not sure if this happens in classrooms everywhere, but many American preschool and school classrooms have regular sessions called “Show and Tell,” where children bring in something from home and they stand in front of the class and talk about the item. Children use these sessions to send messages to their peers about their social capital but teachers are also adding meaning to these interactions as well – one researcher who observed a show and tell session says the teacher said “Look at this lovely doll who’s come to school,” which limited a preschool girl’s talk to description of the doll’s hair and clothing, and focused the interaction on the teacher’s assumption about what kinds of feminine qualities are OK to discuss, and how females interact in communities.
But on the flip side of this, another set of researchers who were following preschoolers in a classroom where princess dolls were provided observed a child who had repeatedly failed to become integrated into her peer group, but when the dolls were introduced she was easily able to join in collaborative play with other girls because of their shared passion for and knowledge of the topic. And this is complex, of course – can we tease out the effects of the benefit of the social interaction on this girl who had struggled to connect to her peers with the possibly negative impacts of exposure to the princess narrative on her personal development? Unfortunately for us, scientific research is much better at being reductive than universal, which is to say that it’s much better at helping us to isolate a single variable and see how that impacts other variables, rather than looking at how a suite of potential variables interact in a child’s life. And chances are this would vary so much by the individual child that the results probably wouldn’t be able to tell us much that’s useful anyway.
So what are we to concluded from this body of research? Well, I’d start by saying that I’m sorry for disappointing you if you expected to come out of this episode with a list of toys that are crucial to your child’s development that you should immediately order on Amazon. The bloggers who recommend specific toys really are not doing this for your benefit; they’re doing it because they get revenue from Amazon not just when you purchase that item, but on everything else you purchase within 24 hours of clicking a link from their site. You can check whether a specific link is an affiliate link because it will have either the word ‘affiliate’ somewhere in it, or some variation of the blogger’s name or website name when you’re looking at the toy you’re considering buying. We have been raising children for 10,000 years so I can tell you with pretty close to 100% certainty that it matters not even a tiny bit whether your child has the authentic Grimm’s rainbow or the knockoff version or maybe some plastic rainbow toy you get at a garage sale or even no rainbow toy at all. We just wouldn’t have survived as a species if children’s development was so dependent on something like whether they have a specific toy or what material that toy is made of.
But of course we parents aren’t just asking for our child to *survive.* In cultures where children’s survival is far from assured, parents are more likely to either require their child to work from a young age or turf them outside to entertain themselves. Play is still an important part of these children’s development, but it isn’t organized and orchestrated by parents because the parents just don’t think it’s worth their time. Where children are required to work they probably still sneak time away from their responsibilities to play but they’re still able to form meaningful connections with their parents through the time they spend on shared tasks. Play isn’t the only way that parents and children can bond. If you’d like to learn more on that topic I’d suggest looking at my episode on how to get your child to do chores, which suggests some ways we can do this.
But in our culture we want to know that our child is going to *thrive,* and this is what leads us to being in the privileged position of thinking about how to set up a play room. Researchers who look at consumerism and privilege have observed that middle class parents want to raise children who aren’t materialistic and don’t act in an entitled way. But we do this primarily by taking things away from our children at the margins – and I uncomfortably count myself in this number. We live in housing that is adequate or more than adequate for our needs; we enroll our children in sports and music and travel with them internationally so they can ‘see the world.’ We give them specialized attention from tutors, teachers, doctors, and therapists. We are willing to deny them certain toys so we can say that we don’t buy them everything they want, either behind the scenes without them knowing or by telling them they can’t have a toy they want but if we ultimately feel that a Grimm’s Rainbow is critical to their development, or that they just won’t be able to fit in at school if they don’t have the latest Star Wars or Frozen accessory, then we’re going to buy it for them. We want them to have an appreciation of what it feels like to not get everything they want, but only when the stakes are low and it’s not *really* going to have an impact on their lives.
People who look at the benefits of play will often cite studies showing that rats who are raised in enriched cages show increased exploratory behaviors and an enlarged hippocampus, which is a region of the brain linked to learning and memory processes, but these rats are being compared to rats who live in plain cages. We’re being told that we have to ‘enrich’ our child’s environment for them to get the brain benefits, but the alternative is not rearing our child in a cage; we’re rearing our child in the amazingly complex wide world which has plenty of stimulation for our children. I’d put money on rats reared in nature having even greater exploratory behaviors and an enlarged hippocampus compared to the ones raised enriched cages – so perhaps we should be worrying less about how to enrich our child’s ‘cage’ and just let them live in the real world.
The clearest finding from the literature is that we do send messages to our child about our culture through the toys we make available to them and how we play with the child. We tell them about whether they are a boy or a girl, and whether we approve of that, and what it means to be a boy or a girl in our culture. We tell them about whether it’s OK to get dirty and climb up high and take risks. Through play we are telling them about what it means to be an adult in our society. So it really doesn’t matter in the slightest how you set your playroom up, or even whether you have a playroom. What matters is how you interact with your child and what messages you convey to your child about your love and acceptance for them, which helps them to understand their place in the world.
Thanks so much for joining me on the exploration of this topic – all of the studies I’ve referenced today can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/playroom
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.