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Cross-Over Play

Dear Debi,
I have a little girl in my care that loves to play with dinosaurs and trucks, and sometimes I see a few of my boys putting dresses on the dolls. Why do they do this and should I be encouraging them to play with toys appropriate for their gender?
Sonnia, Los Angeles, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Provide gender-neutral materials.
  • Connect with parents.
  • Help parents understand different ways kids play.
Expert Advice
Greg Uba
Greg Uba
Children’s Services Coordinator, Connections for Children
When children are allowed to play outside their roles, it gives them the opportunity to go beyond gender bias. Crossover play allows them to develop skills they traditionally aren’t encouraged to develop. It’s common for children to experiment with different roles. Boys can learn to be more nurturing and verbally expressive and girls can learn spatial skills when they’re playing outside of their role.

It is important for providers and teachers to have the ability to describe what kids are learning from that type of behavior. Parents also need to understand why kids are behaving that way. We often say, “children learn by play,” but there’s more to it than that. We have to explain to them that boys who experience nurturing play will be better fathers. The problem is that these gender expectations are firmly rooted in our culture.

Providers can mix together gender-typed materials and toys. They can put dolls in the block area and transportation toys in the dress-up area. Adults should be sensitive not to apply a double standard in the messages they give children. For example, overlooking rough play when boys do it, but not when girls do it. Providers should initiate and encourage group games that are inclusive, provide pictures and role models of non-stereotypical behavior… jobs like male nurses and female firefighters.

Communication between child care providers and parents is very important. Like I said before, providers shouldn’t just tell parents, “children learn through play.” They should take the time to explain exactly what kids are learning through crossover play. One of the main things that teachers need to do is play with the kids. Every adult, no matter the gender, should show the same enthusiasm for activities that are traditionally gendered.
Child Care provider Comments
Family child care provider for 2 years
I think it is perfectly fine for kids to switch roles, and play with different gender toys. All I have to do is explain to the parents what their kids are doing with an analogy.

If I see a boy playing with dolls, for example, and the other kids are discouraging him, I tell the boy that men are parents too and they need to learn how to take care of children just like girls do. If you encourage children to learn about parenting in their early years, they will learn what it means to be a good parent.

The same goes for girls, if you have a girl who’s interested in construction, I tell her it’s OK to work in construction if that’s what you are interested in. Parents are no longer that uptight, they seem to be aware that it is important for kids to see both sides and experience and learn from it.
Family child care provider for 5 years
I let children play with anything that interests them, even if it is not traditionally tailored to their gender. We have the dress up area, for example, with clothes for boys and for girls. A lot of the boys will tend to wear the girls’ dresses, jewelry and make up. We explain to them that it’s fine to experiment with different clothes and accessories.

Sometimes dads are concerned when their boy plays with dresses or dolls. But I explain to them that it is important to allow their children to learn and explore. Some kids have the urge or need to explore toys from the opposite sex, they are curious. Some dads worry because of social norms like “machismo”. Even my husband was concerned when our son began to play with Barbies.

With my parents I try to approach it at the developmental stage level. I have found that if you give them a more psychological view they understand it better and are more patient and open with it.
Provider for 10 years
I have discovered that kids model their parents when they play. If boys have a father who cooks, they will want to cook. Little girls will play with babies, just like their moms. But if a father, let’s say, comes in and sees his boy in a tutu or playing in the kitchen, they would tell them to play with trucks.

I had a parent who suggested that I was letting his boy dress up in girls’ clothes. I tried to explain to him that wearing girls clothes at that age, did not mean that his son was going to grow up to be gay or a transvestite. The boy is simply interested in it, because he sees his mom wearing those clothes. The father was so upset he wanted to pull his child out of the program.

Career Hats Featured Activity:
Career Hats
Gender Neutral Activities Featured Video:
Gender Neutral Activities
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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