Toys play an important part in defining gender roles. If parents buy girls dolls, dollhouses, high-heeled shoes, and makeup, they give one set of messages. If they buy boys chemistry sets, tool kits, doctor’s bags, building blocks, and wheel toys, they give another set of messages. Children learn roles and skills from playing; the toys they have to some extent determine which roles and skills they learn.

Visit a child care program and examine the environment, specifically the block area and the dramatic play corner. Vivian Paley (1984) deals with this subject at length in her informative, easy-to-read book Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. Though the book is not new, the superhero play hasn’t changed. Only the names of the heroes, and the few heroines, change regularly. No more He-Man or Teenage Super Ninja Turtles. Superman is still around, and Spiderman is big. While you are looking into the dramatic play area, notice whether more girls are there or boys. Check out the block area. Is that where you find the boys? If this is the case, examine the factors that might contribute to this situation. Sometimes the adults in the program subtly encourage this kind of gender differentiation. Notice the way the environment is set up. If the dramatic play area is a traditional “housekeeping” corner with frilly girls’ clothes, shoes, and purses, most boys won’t be attracted. If a variety of male or non-gender-specific hats, shoes, ties, and accessories are added, that can help. What helps most of all is adding a little water to the play sink, and maybe some soap suds and sponges.

Because boys tend to dominate block play in many programs, some teachers have tried a variety of approaches to encourage girls to go into the area also. One technique is to arrange the environment so that the blocks are close to the dolls or to put a dollhouse in with the blocks. Another idea is to put up “girls only” signs occasionally to give the message that this is valuable play for both sexes.

Why does it matter if boys never play house and girls never play blocks? It doesn’t, if in other areas of their lives they are getting the skills they miss out on by avoiding these two activities. Dramatic play gives boys a chance to be nurturers, to experience domestic relations, to feel comfortable trying on a variety of emotions. Blocks give girls experience in spatial relations. They learn mathematical concepts as they build things. Ordinary wooden “kindergarten” blocks, called by some unit blocks, represent multiples of the basic square that is found in the set. Block play contributes a good deal to the concrete experience behind math knowledge, and gives the player experiences with principles of physics as well. Frank Lloyd Wright attributed his success as an architect to the set of blocks his mother brought home from a kindergarten conference in Europe back before anyone in the United States had heard of giving children blocks to play with.

It isn’t just where children play or what they play with. It’s also with whom they play. Young children tend to separate themselves by gender. One kindergarten teacher, Stacey Zeitlin (1997), describes how she purposely matched up boys and girls for a science activity. She made a conscious decision not to let the children select their own partners, as she usually did, but assigned them each a partner of the opposite sex. She was worried how it would work, because the children liked to team up with their same-gender best friends during activities like this one. Surprisingly, it worked very well, and she saw how it broke down gender barriers. Children who had never spent time together before spent the rest of the day together. Some continued to seek out their partners as playmates the rest of the year. Zeitlin is now committed to reducing the self- and peer-imposed gender segregation that she sees children practicing.

All of this information has implications for families. Of course, gender role differentiation and segregation may be something some families value. It’s important not to just try to “educate” parents out of their beliefs, but to understand how the beliefs fit into their culture. At the same time it doesn’t hurt to put equity issues on the table for discussion. Parents who take note of some of the practices you are using may learn from them, come to support those practices, and even take them home besides. Parent group discussions that are respectful of differences and disagreement can be useful for helping parents examine their practices around arranging play dates, buying toys, setting up a nonsexist environment, and encouraging broader gender roles.