Megan Fulcher, PhD is an associate professor for the cognitive and behavioral science department at Washington & Lee University, specializing in research on social and emotional development of children and gender roles. On Thursday, Jan. 31, Fulcher presented a lecture in Goodpaster Hall at St. Mary’s College of Maryland entitled “Working at Play: How Play Impacts Children’s Visions of their Future Selves.” This lecture addressed the topic of different children’s toys and their role on feelings of efficacy, gender role development and aspirations for the future.
Fulcher began with explaining Kay Bussey and Albert Bandura’s social theory of cognitive development, which states that children learn through imitating the behaviors of others. Next, Fulcher defined efficacy as “feeling that you’re good at something.” Boys and girls feel efficacy in different domains because they are imitating different models (for example, a mother or father). Because of this, there may be some relationship between playing with gendered toys and children’s vision of their future selves. This concept was investigated in a study on the dolls Barbie and G.I. Joe, which are considered to be “gender-amplified dolls” because they represent gender stereotypes in the domains of occupations as well as appearance.
Fulcher hypothesized that playing with gender-amplified dolls would limit children to gendered play scripts as well as gendered visions of their futures. Researchers gave 62 preschoolers the option to play with either “sunshine family” dolls which are gender-neutral, or the gender-amplified dolls.
When asked about their occupational preferences after playing with the dolls, the boys who played with the gender neutral doll had less traditional job aspirations than the boys who played with G. I. Joe. Barbie’s effect on job aspirations differed depending on where she was — those who played with her in the feminine area showed the most traditional occupational preferences.
Fulcher explained that this implicates the need to make a different kind of doll for girls, specifically one that “does not activate appearance or domestic scripts.” It also would be beneficial to make more dolls for boys that allow for play with a more general script, since boys felt more flexible in career options after playing with the less gendered doll. Fulcher noted that creating dolls that can be used in more gender-flexible ways could be impactful on the reinforcement of gender roles that most toys today do. She provided some examples of ideas for this, such as a “mother doll that also comes with a daycare to drop off her kid,” or a “G.I. Joe that comes with a washing machine.”
Fulcher also described another study she conducted on the idea of feminizing masculine toys. She provided legos with a parent and baby figurine to children ages six to ten, and asked for their reactions after they played with them. The boys said that the mother figurine was less likely to have a job, however there was no difference between genders regarding how much they enjoyed playing with the mother and baby figurines.
Fulcher concluded the lecture saying that it is important to find ways to encourage all types of play with the same types of toys, because having different types of toys for boys versus girls “reinforces stereotypes that boys and girls are very different, and makes gender more salient during play.”