~ By Dr. Srinivasan, Paediatrician
Is it a cliché that boys play with cars and dragons and girls with dolls and dresses?
The answer to this has deceived generations of parents. Our firstborn was a boy and we clothed and swaddled him in any coloured clothing disregarding the shopkeepers' earnest advice to purchase only blue things for him! He had a red tub for his bath and cuddly dolls and teddy bears to play with. He would mouth a piece of soft cloth whenever he needed to feed or sleep! We thought we had burst the myth! Just then a cousin sent a dinky car from abroad and lo and behold, our son took to it like a baby to bathwater! No moment was wasted without vrooming and zooming with his newfound joy! The cuddly soft toys were relegated to the background except for a one-eyed teddybear that his naani got for him and the soft rag that were most important accompaniments/ comforters at meal and bedtimes. Rest of the day was consumed by car sounds, imitation start, stop and crashes as well as impromptu racing. Any object in sight could be turned into an imaginary motor vehicle. There were fewer models on the road, an Am(ma)bassador, a Fiat and a Standard! Soon the cars started getting identified by their distinctive revving sounds and their classical horn blasts.
Our second child is a girl. The toys that her elder brother used were all at home and we thought she wouldn't require any new ones! How we were proved wrong! She would turn all toys into baby dolls and use every piece of fabric found in the house to clothe and adorn her dolls. Every cosmetic in the house would find its way into her dolls house. A little later she started trying every high heels in the house as well as in the homes we visited! By 3 years she got fascinated by foodstuffs and was ever ready to cook a meal for her elder brother! Close to 5 she was ready to bring home few days old pups from stray dog litters in the neighborhood! So there goes the contention that children's fascination for toy cars, dinosaurs and dolls are not gender biased.
Research has not been able to say why this happens. Some believe that gender difference in selection of playthings is based on evolution. In the ancient nomadic times it is believed that women were confined to home and raising children looking after safety and health-nutrition of the family, while men went hunting for prey. So boys developed interest in machines, loud sounds and hunting lore. Girls developed interest in dolls, home making and child rearing skills. I wonder if I can rely on this argument for explaining child behaviour.
By the time children learn to vocalize and start cruising around they are looking for things to mouth and to carry around. This is when they develop these 'intense interests'. They are happier with things that make loud sounds and those that move by themselves. Toy cars foot the bill easily. They can also be used as missiles/arrows in childplay. Both girls and boys have been known to like cars and get obsessed with them. Boys' interests in cars and rough play get reinforced by adult approval. Young girls who act similarly are dissuaded by adults more often than not and encouraged to pursue 'softer' options! Socialization wins over innate tendencies.
Obsessive 'intense interests' offer innumerable opportunities for learning. There are so many terms that can be learnt. Number sense, sense of size, shape and texture can be learnt from this play. Memory, colour sense, improvisations and management strategies are additional learning themes. Simulated car crashes can expose them to security issues and elements of prevention and first aid! Children spin abundant stories based on their play with toycars and babydolls.