©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Many behaviors in adulthood, including the way in which people view problems and their potential solutions, can no doubt be traced back to childhood experiences and style of socialization. These would include the type of play activities engaged in as well as the type of toys that were provided, permitted, or available. One’s personal histories in these areas can differ dramatically and can impact their nature-nurture combination.

Jessica’s Story…

Jessica has three sons and one daughter. The twins, her first family, as she often refers to them, are seventeen. Her next family consists of Joel who is five and Janice who is seven. 

Jessica purchases model kits for both of the younger children because she wants to give them similar learning opportunities. It continues to amaze her, however, that even though Janice can read much more proficiently than can Joel, he is much quicker than his sister at assembling a model. In fact, he rarely even looks at the diagram!

Comment: Janice likely reads more easily since her left hemisphere was more developed at birth and she may find assembly more of a challenge even if she is the older of the two. Jake likely assembles models more easily since his left hemisphere was more developed at birth, home of visual-spatial abilities. No matter! Each child will find some tasks easier and each will get to practice some that are more of a challenge.

In terms of who likes to play with what it can be difficult to distinguish between innate preferences (nature) versus behaviors that have been shaped by the expectations (nurture) of family, school, church, work, culture, and society.  

It can be beneficial for boys and girls to have opportunities to play with and experience a range of toys and games as long as caregivers understand that there are and will be differences in abilities, preferences, and choices. Joel likely finds it easier to assemble models since his right hemisphere was more developed at birth. He will also likely find reading directions more of a challenge.

Play Objects and Selection

Growing up, children play with objects. Sometimes those objects were sleek state-of-the-art toys. Often they were create-your-own-from-whatever-was-available toys. Either way, children play with what they have, and what they have influences the types of skills they develop. Studies show that when children can select play objects from a large assortment of items, they make different choices.

Review a comparison sampling in the table that follows.

imageFemale Brains

Many (but not all) tend to gravitate toward toys and play objects that:

  • Resemble human beings or animals (e.g., dolls, stuffed animals)
  • Are used to help people (e.g., dishes, cooking utensils, sewing implements)
  • Help them learn something connected with people (e.g., cooking TV shows)
  • Allow them to connect and communicate with others (e.g., e-mail and cell-phone talking or texting; computer programs such as Facebook, Twitter, and others)

imageMale Brains 

Many (but not all) gravitate toward:

  • Nonhuman objects or representations such as Star Wars, Superman, or science-fiction figures
  • LEGO® toys, Lincoln Logs, model kits, or their more modern equivalents
  • Computer games or programs that allow them to explore
  • Real-time games involving competition that are observed or played
  • Vehicles, planes, ships, submarines, space ships, and rockets (especially those involved in transportation, exploration, construction, or war)

NOTE: Girls with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia tend to gravitate toward boys’ toys (so called) and toward more male-type activities and interests (e.g., cars, engineering) in adulthood. This suggests that some choices may be related to nature (e.g., testosterone levels). Others are more likely related to the spoken or unspoken expectations of what was okay for them to do based on gender identification.

Comment: Many parents, care-providers, and teachers are consciously providing a wider assortment of toys for children of both genders than perhaps was the stereotypical pattern in the past. Aside from gender considerations, this can be very beneficial for children from the perspective of extroversion/introversion, sensory preference, and brain lead. At least a nodding acquaintance with a wider variety of objects can impact one’s willingness to try something new. This perspective can carry over into career choices, as well.

Play as Work

According to Fred Rogers:

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.
But for children, play is serious learning.
Play is really the work of childhood.

Jeni’s Story…

Jeni visited her uncle’s farm for the first time when she was nine years old. Her three male cousins, ranging in age from seven to eleven, were anxious to show her everything. It didn’t take her long to notice that even the seven-year old was allowed to drive the tractor.

At bedtime of the second day Jeni kneeled down to say evening prayers. “Dear God, I really like the farm (long pause) but I wish I was a boy. Is there anything that can be done about that? Amen!”

“Oh, Jeni! Her mother exclaimed. “A girl is a girl is a girl! Why ever would you wish to be a boy? I’m so happy to have a little girl!’’

“Because,” said Jeni slowly, distinctly, and somewhat dramatically, “boys are allowed to do ever so many more things and have better toys. I hate being a girl!”

Play Characteristics and Socialization

imageFemale Brains

  • Tend to play in small groups where there may be several leaders.
  • Tend to have more informal group experiences.
  • Conversation is important and occurs frequently. Most of the sounds made involve actual words.
  • Bond via emotional pain (e.g., share secrets with each other).
  • Tend to have less field independence
  • Games are often noncompetitive.
  • Learn it is important to be liked.

imageMale Brains

  • Tend to play in large groups with usually one leader.
  • Tend to have more organized team experiences.
  • Conversation may be used to direct and inform but occurs less frequently. Perhaps 40% of the sounds made do not involve actual words and are descriptive noises.
  • Bond through physical pain (e.g., wrestle, fight) and may be “best friends” after the fight).
  • Generally are given (and often demand) more field independence
  • Games are usually competitive.
  • Learn it is important to win.

Comment: Children become socialized during their play experiences. Differing childhood environments involving differing toys and play objects, as well as differing play experiences tend to result, at least stereotypically, in differing experiences for girls and boys.

In general:

imageFemales are socialized to be gentle, compliant, somewhat dependent, conforming, inclusive, nurturing, and manipulative. They learn to value “we” over “I.” They don’t usually try to obtain recognition for what they do, so they receive less credit for their work.

imageMales are socialized to be tough, assertive, independent, individualistic, exclusive, competitive, and somewhat exploitative. They learn to value “I” over “we.” And they usually try to make sure they are recognized for what they do and so receive more credit for their work.

Teamwork Characteristics

The way in which you approach cross-gender teamwork in adulthood is impacted by your socialization experiences during your growing-up years. Typically, males and females approach teamwork differently.

Ed’s and Alicia’s Story…

Ed and Alicia were discussing a situation that was the talk of their community. “It’s simple,” Ed pronounced emphatically. “They need to get their act together and function as a team!” 

Alicia pursed her lips. “That seems a bit cut and dried.” She thought for a minute. “Maybe if they got to know each other better the problem just might take care of itself.” 

Ed rolled his eyes. “Not likely!” After a pause he added, “What is it with you women? Being friends won’t solve anything. Going by the rules just might!”

Following are examples of the way in which males and females typically approach teamwork situations:

imageFemale Brains

  • Experience-oriented, expressive
  • Collaborative, work together
  • Much conversations
  • Long-term planners
  • Value the person above the team/game
  • Are willing to change the rules

imageMale Brains

  • Goal-oriented, instrumental
  • Competitive, work side-by-side
  • Little conversation
  • Short-term planners
  • Value the team or game above the person
  • Believe that rules are sacred


In the big scheme of life your personal history influences the type of activities with which you feel comfortable as well as your teamwork style. Fortunately, in adulthood, you have the ability to make a conscious choice to evaluate the experiences you had growing up and hone skills that can result in more effective outcomes, if needed.