“I’m a boy but I’m pretending I’m a girl”:
Cross-gendered play in preschool children
Ms. Clark is preparing to take her 4-year-olds to lunch.
Suddenly Sefan’s father appears at the classroom door.
“Hello,” he says. “I was in the neighborhood and decided to
come and eat lunch with Stefan.”
All activity in the room stops, as children turn to look at their visitor.
“What a nice surprise,” says Ms. Clark. “Stefan’s over
He looks in the direction she’s pointing. His jaw drops. There in the home
center is Stefan, wearing a red skirt and silver necklace and carrying a purse.
“Daddy!” the child squeals, throwing down the purse and running to
Dad is speechless. After a moment, he asks: “What are you doing in those
Stefan replies: “It’s my turn to be the mommy.”
The preschool period is a time of rapid growth and development.
One area that shows dramatic changes is gender identity. This
article addresses the influence of cross-gendered play on preschoolers’ emerging
understanding of what it means to be male or female. Cross-gendered
play occurs when children pretend to be the opposite sex during
socio-dramatic or pretend play.
Play and social development
Between the ages of 1 and 5 years, children will acquire a great
number of skills including language, emotional regulation,
cognitive strengths, and motor growth. Through daily exploration
children learn about the world around them and gain an understanding
of themselves including their gender identity. Positive social
interactions, such as play, are often a key element in healthy
development (Fantuzzo et al. 2004; Lindsey and Colwell 2003).
Through play children are able to act out and process new information
as they form schemas, or cognitive categories, of information.
Children learn to piece together bits of information to understand
their environment as well as themselves. In regard to gender,
children use play to understand their own identity and that
Pretend play is a common form of social interaction among preschool
children. As language and cognitive skills increase, children
typically spend more time engaging in imaginary play either alone
or with peers. During pretend play it is common for children
to take on roles that are either real or imagined. Children may
pretend to be a dragon one day and a teacher the next.
It is also common for children to take on roles of the opposite
sex. For example, a boy may pretend to be a mommy or a girl a
daddy. When children engage in this type of play, caregivers
often become concerned about children’s understanding of
their gender role. Caregivers may wonder whether children are
confused about their gender and worry that this confusion may
carry over into adolescence and adulthood.
with young children, we need to keep in mind their developmental
level. As they mature, children move through various stages,
each with distinct characteristics. In regard to gender, children
are not born knowing that they are a boy or girl or what it means
to be male or female. To young children, anatomical features
are just more parts that need to be sorted into a cognitive schema.
of gender development
Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg identified a series of steps through
which children progress as they acquire an understanding of
their gender and that of others (1966).
In the first stage, preschool children can label individuals
as male or female, but these categories are not stable. Often,
gender is ascribed to visual markers such as clothing or hair
length. Children at this stage believe that simply changing those
features will change the gender. For example, if a child thinks
that women wear dresses, then putting on a dress will make a
person a woman. Anatomical features are not a consideration because
these are not visible in most situations. Therefore, the sex
of a person may change based on the outfit or other highly visible
In the second stage, children begin to understand that gender
is a constant feature; yet they will still indicate that one
can switch genders by changing outward appearance (Kohlberg 1966).
Children at this stage are more likely to experiment with cross-gendered
play to help them understand that gender is constant. At this
point in their development children understand that their gender
has not been altered when they dress or pretend to be the opposite.
By engaging in cross-gendered play at this stage, children enhance
their understanding of gender consistency in others.
In the third stage, children understand that sex is a constant
feature regardless of outward appearance (Kohlberg 1966). Children
may still engage in cross-gendered play as a method to help them
understand social role and expectations. However, children at
this stage are less likely to exhibit these behaviors because
of the increasing social expectations and gender stereotypic
beliefs placed on the child.
Motives behind cross-gendered play
Preschool children act out roles and images they see in their
daily lives, including those of parents, caregivers, and siblings
(McHale et al. 2003). Children may engage in cross-gendered
play as a way to explore behaviors demonstrated by a person
of the opposite sex.
Talking, acting, or dressing like a person of the opposite sex
typically means that a child admires some of the behavioral aspects
or abilities of that person. For example, when Jimmy wears a
ballet tutu, he may be showing his fascination with the great
leaps made by Odette in a performance of “Swan Lake” he
has recently seen. Cross-gendered play does not indicate that
Jimmy’s confused about his own gender. Nor does it mean
that he wishes he were or believes he is the opposite sex any
more than another boy believes he’s a dragon.
A second reason children will often engage in cross-gendered
play is the lack or absence of specific role models. If Molly
has no father at home, for example, she may pretend to be a father
during play. Similarly, if Adam’s grandmother were placed
in a rehabilitation center for an extended period, Adam might
pretend to be a grandma during play. Once the role models return
to the children’s lives, such behaviors are likely to decrease.
Benefits of cross-gendered play
As children’s understanding of gender develops, they often
form rigid stereotypes about appropriate behaviors (Poulin-Doubis
et al. 2002). By engaging in cross-gendered play, children learn
to take on roles and characteristics that go against the stereotype
for their gender.
Boys may learn to be more caring and nurturing, while girls may
become more assertive. Such traits enhance the development of
children and may guide them to explore professions typically
dominated by the opposite gender.
Research indicates that any type of pretend play enhances multiple
areas of development including cognition, language, and self-awareness
(Cutting and Dunn 2006; Russ 2003). Therefore, it’s important
that children be allowed to engage in pretend play on a regular
basis to enhance their development as well as their understanding
of the environment.
Supporting all play
Cross-gendered play is a natural part of development. It’s
unwise for teachers and parents to shame or embarrass children
for engaging in it. This does not mean that a caregiver or parent
has to push children into such play either.
When children engage in pretend play, they often carry out their
scenarios without comments from adults. Forbidding a certain
kind of play can make it all the more enticing. Ideally, caregivers
will treat cross-gendered play in the same way they treat other
types of pretend play. Being free to engage in cross-gendered
play, children can explore until they understand the gender role
and then move on.
How long children engage in cross-gendered pretend play varies
by child. The majority of children outgrow this form of play
by the time they enter elementary school.
Having the freedom to explore and engage in cross-gendered play
helps children understand their own gender identity and the gender
roles in their environment.
Quick tips for caregivers
Caregivers and parents often have a difficult time dealing with
cross-gendered play, yet will accept other forms of fantasy
play for prolonged periods. For example, Mr. Gomez may be perfectly
willing to go along with Alberto acting like a puppy for several
months. But he will discourage Alberto from acting like a girl.
Here are a few points to keep in mind:
Cross-gendered play is a typical part of development for preschool
Children move through a series of stages in gender development.
Each stage may bring a readjustment period in which cross-gendered
play may increase.
Children use cross-gendered play to help then develop schemas
of male and female roles.
Engaging in cross-gendered play does not mean that children
will want to be the opposite sex or that they do not understand
they are a boy or girl.
Allowing children to freely engage in cross-gendered play will
help them understand gender roles at a faster rate and will let
them move on to a new task to master.
Cutting, A. L., and J. Dunn. 2006. Conversations with siblings
and friends: Links between relationship quality and social
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Fantuzzo, J., Y. Sekino, and H.L. Cohen. 2004. An examination
of the contributions of interactive peer play to salient classroom
competencies for urban Head Start children. 41: 323-336.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1966. A cognitive developmental analysis
of children’s sex-role concepts and attitudes. . Eleanor Maccoby, ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
University Press, 82-173.
Lindsey, E. W., and M.J. Colwell. 2003. Preschoolers’ emotional
competence: Links to pretend and physical play. 33: 39-52.
McHale, S., A.C. Crouter, and S.D. Whiteman. 2003. The family
contexts of gender development in childhood and adolescence.
Poulin-Dubois, D., L.A. Serbin, J.A. Eichstedt, M.G. Sen, and
C.F. Beissel. 2002. Men don’t put on make-up: Toddlers’ knowledge
of the gender stereotyping of household activities. 11: 166-181.
Russ, S. W. 2003. Play and creativity: Developmental issues.
About the authors
Tiffany Hamlett is a doctoral student in child development at
Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. She teaches
child development courses at Tarrant County College and provides
parent and teacher educational seminars in her community. Her
research interests include play, preschool social relations,
and infant development.
Dr. Ron Fannin is an associate professor in the Department of
Family Sciences, Early Childhood Education, at Texas Woman’s
University. His interests include infant brain development as
well as human brain development across the lifespan.