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Toys for girls and boys and chimpanzees.

December 21, 2010

Image courtesy Zelda Lily

One of my favorite childhood Christmas presents was an easel. Dad tore his knuckles open trying to piece it together into the wee hours of Christmas eve, and it sat in the middle of the room when I came down the stairs on Christmas morning. Why am I talking about an easel? Because every kid could use an easel. Boy or girl.

As I’ve leafed through various toy catalogs this Christmas season, I’ve noticed something troubling. In one in particular, young girls were depicted playing either with mommy-training toys or pink versions of normal toys. The two instances in which they played with gender neutral toys (Legos and a fishing game), they were always depicted playing with a male child.

Meanwhile, the only time a boy was depicted doing anything remotely “girly,” it was cooking on a plastic play grill. That’s right. Man-cooking.

I wish I would have hung onto the catalog. Toys-R-Us, I believe. Older girls in the catalog broke the rule, as they were playing with gender neutral guitars and microphones.

With the recent plight of Katie, it’s saddening to see retailers continue to split boys and girls between active toys and passive toys. Or, the one that rankles me the most, “normal version” and “pink/girl version.” We’ve blogged on that before. We are all about choice in toys for all kids, but when the choices are only normal and girl, there’s a problem. And if it’s just about choice, where is the pink workbench, or the non-pink dollhouse? But I digress.

Is this all the fault of the toymakers, or is it in our genes? A recent report released by primologists Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College and Richard Wrangham of Harvard states that young girl and boy chimpanzees play with toy sticks in very different ways. Females are far more likely to turn sticks into imaginary babies, while young males turn them into play-weapons. This is apparently “the first evidence of an animal species in the wild in which object play differs between males and females.” And there’s more.

Earlier studies of captive monkeys had also suggested a biological influence on toy choice. When juvenile monkeys are offered sex-stereotyped human toys, females gravitate toward dolls, whereas males are more apt to play with “boys’ toys” such as trucks.

It’s not yet clear whether this form of play is common in chimpanzees, the researchers say. In fact, no one has previously reported stick-carrying as a form of play, despite considerable interest among chimpanzee researchers in describing object use. “This makes us suspect that stick-carrying is a social tradition that has sprung up in our community and not others,” Wrangham said. Because stick-carrying is relatively rare even in the Kanyawara chimps that Wrangham and Kahlenberg studied, they won’t be sure until researchers studying other communities report its absence. They note that chimp play is generally poorly described because chimp communities are usually small with few youngsters at any one time.

If it turns out that stick-carrying is unique to the Kanyawara chimps, “it will be the first case of a tradition maintained just among the young, like nursery rhymes and some games in human children,” Wrangham said. “This would suggest that chimpanzee behavioral traditions are even more like those in humans than previously thought.”

So it might be a mix of biological and social. It’s a really interesting finding, and more research absolutely should be done.

If you ask me, this all just stresses what I’ve said before; give your kids gender neutral building toys (like sticks?). See what they make out of them and what kind of play they come up with themselves. And let THAT direct your toy buying choices. Not pink.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Fram Ride On permalink
    December 28, 2012 3:40 am

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post
    was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

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