By April Garbuz, Wilton High School
In our culture, little girls spend their time changing dolls’ clothes and playing house, while little boys spend time wrestling in the mud. A young boy playing with dolls is considered a major taboo in our civilization, as is a young girl rough-housing. While children’s choice of play seems to be a direct response to society’s expectations, there may be another influence on this behavior. It is time we point our fingers at nature -- as opposed to nurture -- because our evolutionary ancestry may play a bigger role than we thought in the way children play.
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s 14 year ongoing study at Kibale National Park presents evidence that the chimps exhibit gender-based preferences in toys. Young female chimps in the Kanyawara community often use sticks to imitate child care by hugging them, creating games, and tucking them into bed. Young males infrequently use sticks in the same fashion. They are far more often fighting with the sticks -- an uncommon behavior amongst the females. Wrangham’s previous research concluded that when monkeys were presented with toy cars, balls, pots and dolls, the majority of the females gravitated towards the pots and dolls, while the males went for the cars and balls.
The play of the young chimps displays no evidence of direct influence by the adult chimps. However, the young females have a tendency to carry sticks in a style reminiscent of mock-mothering. Researchers suggest that young Kanyawara chimps model their play behavior after each other, not the mother chimps themselves, as the mothers hold babies, rather than sticks, and do not directly model this behavior. Mocking each other's play habits is consistent with the “monkey see, monkey do” behavior exhibited in the community. Through studies like this, we come to realize that sex-based stereotypes often ring true.