Gender segregation in early childhood: a test of the play style compatibility hypothesis



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Texas Tech University


Maccoby and Jacklin (1987) have suggested that gender segregation occurs for reasons other than a simple socialization explanation; rather, differences in interactional styles may cause children to prefer playmates of the same sex, leading to segregated play. Boys have often been found to display rough and tumble and verbally dominant behaviors during social interactions, whereas girls are more likely to engage in more socially skilled activities. According to the play style compatibility hypothesis, girls find boys' play style to be aversive and thus segregate according to gender during play. Cognitive factors, such as awareness of gender categories, are also thought to play a role.

Research up to this point has been largely observational. The current study used an experimental manipulation to test the play style compatibility hypothesis. Preschool boys and girls were shown videotaped clips of other preschoolers playing in one of three play styles: (1) rough and tumble, (2) verbally dominating, or (3) friendly (neither rough and tumble nor verbally dominating). Participants were asked which of the videotaped models they preferred. Younger children were expected to base preferences on play styles; that is, females were expected to prefer models demonstrating friendly play, whereas males were expected to prefer models demonstrating rough and tumble or verbally dominating play. Older children were expected to base preferences on gender; that is, females were expected to prefer female models, and males were expected to prefer male models because they have learned to associate preferred play styles with a particular gender.

When comparing rough and tumble play versus friendly play, younger participants preferred rough and tumble play in females but friendly play in males; when comparing verbally dominant play versus friendly play, there was limited support for the hypothesis that younger females would prefer friendly play whereas younger males would prefer verbally dominant play. Older participants did display the predicted same-sex bias; furthermore, friendly play was liked more than the other two styles, suggesting socialization effects in this age group.



Gender identity, Identity in children, Sex role in children, Sex differences in children, Play