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Towers and Gates

I was doing a little research for a paper and I randomly came across this neat study Dr. Erik Erikson did in 1970.
He had a room full of toys and blocks and stuff and had kids come in to set up scenes with the toys to see if there would be any difference between the configurations that the boys and girls set up.
What’s crazy is that not only was there a difference, but the difference reminded him of something….

For instance, Boys tended to set up one of two types of structures: either a tall tower/building or a scene of the ruins of a tower/building.  One boy built a super tall tower, but decided to take it down to build a shorter but more sturdy tower,  while one boy built a tall and precarious tower on purpose because, he said, the fact that it could fall down any moment was exciting.  Also, the smallest boy was the one who built the tallest tower (overcompensating much?).

The girls rarely built any towers, instead they set up circles of toys sitting together inside a house with low walls.  A lot of the scenes the girls set up were very serene, but in a number of cases the scenes would include some kind of disturbance – an intruder.   Usually the intruder (even if it was an animal) was identified as being male, while the characters reacting were usually female (e.g. the teacher doll jumping on top of the piano when the tiger doll comes into the classroom).  What’s also interesting, is that the girls didn’t build high walls to defend against the intruders, the majority of the scenes instead seemed like they were meant to be funny or full of pleasurable excitement.

Another difference was that while the boys spent time decorating their towers, the girls spent time decorating the gates of their enclosed scenes.

Erikson commented on how crazy it is that the spatial play of these kids seemed to be reminiscent of genital models  – I’m sure you didn’t miss that tall towers are like erect penises and enclosed circles with a single entrance are like vaginas.

Erikson wondered if perhaps genital modes may be dominating the spatial organization of kids at this age; this difference may reflect a difference in the sense of space we experience in the world – the layout of our bodies is the significant difference between the sexes, and this seems to affect our experience both biologically and socially as we grow up.

So what do you think?  Is it possible that the kids are unconsciously setting up scenes that reflect their genital modes (esp since they are at an age where they were approaching puberty) or are we pervy adults just reading too much into different scene building trends between girls and boys?

Childhood and Society (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970) 92, 93-100.

10 comments to Towers and Gates

  • Sem

    Not everything has to be attributed to sex.

    Boys tend to like play that involves either building things or things that move and have action. Girls tend to like play that involves pretty things and imitating social interaction. A gender difference? Yes. Sexual? No.

  • quilzas

    Huh. Interesting.

    I wonder at the ages of the kids. I also wonder if the results would be similar if it was done with kids from all sorts of different cultures. I’m assuming this was US.

  • Chris

    The answer, of course, is both. Children and adults are different, to be sure, but we are much
    more the same than we are different. I’m reminded of a quote I saw attributed to Fred Rogers: “We are not just the age we are now; we are all the ages we have ever been.”

    The other angle on this is the notion that sex and gender are not the same. I’m betting there were some boys who made “girl arrangements” and vice versa.

    Shay. Will you provide a citation for this study?

  • Shay

    Chris yes I will, I just left the book at school – I’ll add it tomorrow. It’s a good read, his writing style is just lovely.

  • Julien

    Something that this study may be neglecting is social influences on the children, especially from adults. Parents give their children feedback on their play, whether conscious or not, and children watch their parents; parental instincts (in my opinion) are to emphasize the masculinity in boys and the femininity in girls, and yes I do believe this encompasses sexuality as well.

    However, to answer your question: I honestly think we’re reading way too much into this… anything and everything that’s straight can be a penis, and anything and everything that’s round can be a vagina. If we look at other studies of gender, males tend to be more competitive, while females tend to be more cooperative – in general. What better way to be competitive than to fight gravity and see how tall of a tower you can build? And what better way to be cooperative than to arrange all your toys in a circle, where no one is left out of the group? As for the bit about decorating… well, yeah, of course the boys are going to spend time decorating their towers, if towers are what they’re building – they don’t have anything else _to_ decorate. And I’m mighty skeptical of the girls’ gate decorations – if we’re looking for sexuality already, it’s easy to take any decoration near the front of the ‘room’ as a gate decoration, or to place too much importance on gate decorations and miss other decoration – we are creatures of patterns, and we love to find data that supports our patterns. Would you mind giving us a little more info on the decorating part?

  • Julien

    Also, this may be an example of affirming the consequent, a logical fallacy:

    1. If childrens’ spacial reasoning were affected by their sexuality, they would build shapes that mimic their sexuality.
    2. We see children building shapes that appear to mimic their sexuality.
    3. Therefore, childrens’ spacial reasoning is affected by their sexuality.

    We may be able to find a correlation here, but we have no evidence of a causation and alternatives do exist – that’s what I was trying to argue in my last post.

  • Shay

    Julien, before you rush to assumptions you should check out the full study – I’ve just given a loose summary here for interest.

  • NDO

    I think this concept has been borne out by other studies, but it has been too long since I studied psych 101 to say that with any authority! That said, I think it is a fascinating phenomenon. Cool post.

  • Oliver

    I’m a first time visitor to your blog – I’m liking it! An interesting post – is Erikson’s paper available online? Anyway, there’s no doubt that significant gender differences are observable in even very young kids, I see it all the time. However, regarding this particular hypothesis, the literalness of the assertion makes me immediately suspicious – so obvious it feels like an adult’s viewpoint imposed on a context that requires more subtle understanding than simply the old “penis and vagina” thing.

    Anyway, great blog – I look forward to reading more.

  • Shay

    Oliver – it’s a pretty old paper so I’m not sure if it will be available online, but I’ve added a reference to the book in which it’s discussed.

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