Department or Program


Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Beth Hennessey

Additional Advisor(s)

Sally Theran

Additional Advisor

Linda Carli


Gender is one of the more complicated identity traits to model, investigate, and comprehend. Despite this complexity, researchers have long found that the establishment of gender identity is fundamental to even a very young child’s developing sense of self. As children strive to learn about complex social norms, including those regarding gender, play is one of their best tools for comprehending and exploring social rules and expectations. Through play, children are able to express and process their emotions, and in interaction with their peers, they are also given the opportunity to recreate and explore social dynamics (Kyratzis & Ervin-Tripp, 1999; Russ & Fiorelli, 2010). In fantasy play, the themes children explore are strongly related to their own real-world behaviors and home lives (Von Klitzing, Kelsay, Emde, Robinson, & Schmitz, 2000). In the present study, the relations between children’s formation of and adherence to gender stereotypes, their preferences for specific styles of play, their playmates, and the narratives they create during play were explored in a laboratory preschool setting. Results showed both that these preschoolers were well aware of prevailing gender stereotypes, and that these stereotypes were frequently exhibited in their own gendered behavior, as displayed during naturalistic play observations and an experimenter-designed play situation. Data from this 2016 investigation are compared to results reported in previous studies carried out two or more decades ago and similarities and differences across experimental findings are discussed.