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Playing gender, learning culture among Mbendjele and Hadza forager children from Congo and Tanzania

Fri, March 22, 7:45 to 9:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

Though an extensive literature on the role of context in the development of gender through play exists, to-date, it has overwhelmingly focused on Euro-American children. Hunter-gatherer (or forager) boys and girls show few differences in behavior until mid to late childhood, and receive fewer gendered chore assignments than peers in farming communities. Nonetheless, forager children grow up to learn the gender norms of their society, including the gendered division of labor in adulthood. In the present study, we investigate how gendered behaviors are learned through play using behavioral observation data collected among Hadza and Mbendjele forager 3- to 18-year-olds. Specifically, we test four sets of hypotheses regarding the development of gender within Mbendjele and Hadza cultural and ecological contexts: (1) consistent with the theory that play serves a learning function throughout childhood, participation in play should decrease with age; (2) children are more likely to segregate by gender during play in camps with more children, and thus, more potential same-gendered playmates, supporting the notion that availability of playmates affects gender-segregated play; (3) because children spend more time in mix-gendered playgroups, gender differences in types of play, such as exercise and R&T, should be attenuated; and (4) the themes engaged in during pretense should be specific to the cultural contexts in which they live. In support of the hypothesis that play serves a learning function throughout childhood, we found that for both the Hadza and the Mbendjele, children played less as they aged. We also found important differences regarding the frequency of play in both societies. First, we found that the Mbendjele played more than the Hadza, and that while Mbendjele boys were found to play more than Mbendjele girls, Hadza girls were found to play more than Hadza boys. These differing results are explained by examining children’s participation in subsistence, and culture change. We also found that the number of child inhabitants in a camp was negatively correlated with playing in mixed-gendered groups. The effect of limited gender-segregation in play may result in fewer gender differences in the frequency of play types; while gender differences in exercise play, object play, and, most notably, R&T have been found in a variety of settings, here, we found no gendered differences in R&T, object, and exercise play, while we do find some cultural differences in play. Finally, though there were no gender or ethnicity differences found in the frequency at which children participated in pretense play, gender was a significant predictor for participation in pretense which imitates gender-specific adult work. Such findings suggest that the development of gendered behaviors rests at the intersection between culture, demography, environment and history, and thus, that a recent call for cross-cultural research in the field of psychology, and especially in the study of play, should be taken seriously.


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