In news that will likely please gender essentialists and leave others confused, boys and girls as young as six months appear to (maybe, sort of) prefer toys deemed traditionally appropriate for their gender.
Thirty six-month-old children were shown a pink doll and a blue truck. With new eye tracking technology, scientists found that while boys and girls both looked at the doll more than at the truck, girls looked at the doll more than boys did, whereas boys looked at the truck more than girls. According to Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily,
The researchers say babies this young don't have the motor skills to actually play with these toys, so the result must be due to different visual preferences in boys and girls. Arguably, babies at this age don't have any opinion about gender roles and don't even particularly distinguish between genders, so social influences must not be responsible for this difference.
Munger, however, is skeptical. He writes,
Personally, I'm not so sure I'm convinced by the researchers' logic. Little girls are dressed in pink and boys are dressed in blue from a very young age. Girls are given dolls and boys are given trucks, so whether the babies are conscious of gender roles or are able to physically interact with these toys, they have been exposed to them more or less based on their gender.
Eric Berger of SciGuy adds, "I think the study might have been more persuasive if the dolls and trucks would have been the same color." Since plenty of people still think it's important to paint a baby girl's room pink and a boy's room blue, I agree that color differences may have biased the results. I also agree with Munger that "it's intriguing to learn that at an average age of 6 months, girls already appear to be more interested in dolls and less interested in trucks than boys are" — although given that both genders looked at the doll more, the difference seems pretty small.
However, I'd also like to point out that the doll/truck dichotomy is sort of an artificial one. Kids are surprisingly flexible, and while it's true that some only like tutus and tiaras and others are single-minded MicroMachine addicts, most kids (and most toys) fall somewhere in between. My brother and I jointly played with the following: Legos, face paint, a Playmobil castle complete with an iron maiden, a set of cardboard bricks we used for our version of "The Cask of Amontillado," Batman and dinosaur action figures (who costarred in our short film, Mr. Freeze and the Velociraptor Rumble in Van Nuys), various wigs, and a stuffed flamingo named Rasputin. As interesting as it is to study gender differences in the way kids play, and to find the source of these differences, we should remember that lots of play — like lots of human behavior in general — is ungendered, and that boys and girls have a lot more in common than an essentialist interpretation of the doll vs. truck study might suggest.