Segregated Play by Natasha Al-Rafie

Segregated Play with Children

Child Development: The Early Years

Natasha Al-Rafie


Play is essential to the cognitive and emotional development of children. Within the Lightfoot et al. textbook we view play, and connection as interlinked models of development with infants and young children. Play supports and encourages children to be intelligent through creative thinking, and engagement in prosocial / emotionally healthy behavior. (Lightfoot, Cole & Cole, 2013). Play is important, and there are many ways for children to play. One key way that children play inherently is through segregation. Segregation in this case through the following groups (this list is not exhaustive): developmental delays, language, race/ethnicity, behavior, gender, etc. Segregated play means to isolate or disconnect from other children who look or act differently when playing or engaging.

According to the article “Diversity and Play: Influences of Race, Culture, Class, and Gender” segregated play can lead to isolation and shame for children who are not part of the group (Ramsey, 1998 p. 30). Self-regulation and prosocial behaviors are linked to positive outcomes for segregated play. The child learns empathy, sympathy, and cultural norms; and the child adapts to emotions. However, when children play, they play with who they know and the people who look and act like they do (Gaither, Chen, Corriveau, Harris, Ambady & Sommers, 2014). And as referenced by Ramsey, this form of segregation damages diversity and creative thought.

Segregated play changes our children, it changes children by creating an inherent bias towards one group. By indulging the inherent biases noted in “See Baby Discriminate”, we are not allowing our children to develop to their full potential through experiencing a diverse play group (Bronson & Merryman, 2009). Within this essay you will learn, from professionals within the child development field and an observation piece, the causes and effects of segregated play within the two topic areas: gender, and race/ethnicity. You will hear about the ways children discriminate, and the ways that parents perpetuate segregated play.

Topic Focus

The child observed, Charles (Appendix A), was playing with a white action figure he chose from the toy selection he was provided. The child played with his toy by throwing the toy on the ground, jumping on the toy, and yelling animal noises. The boy did this for 10 minutes until he decided to make the toy stand next to him. The child was frustrated when the toy would not stand, he became overwhelmed by the situation and left after screaming and crying under the visual supervision of a teacher. The child chose a male-gendered toy, which was white. He has the choice between 2 female-gendered toy, or a black action figure. The child chose the white, male-gendered, action figure to utilize.

From basic knowledge of Charles through the observation (Appendix A), he is a typical three year old boy. He was physically playing to his abilities, he was standing and walking normally. He could control his body, and his body gestures (Lightfoot, Cole & Cole, 2013). He was able to gesture to himself on what he wanted the doll to do, and through communication with himself he know what his body needed to do (Goldin-Meadow, 2009). Charles was also aggressive and in need of a winning moment. His aggression and emotional volatility is also normal at the age of three. He went from happy and growling to screaming and crying within moments, and his mind was moving quickly from one task to another. Charles wanted to play with his toys and he wanted them to do specific tasks.

Boys who are Charles’ age, typically play aggressively and want to be active. Charles, jumping and throwing, was normal of a boy that age. He was getting out some much needed play time. Charles was also using name association to create play patterns for himself. Charles used animal noises and names to connect to his play. This name association and connection is typical of children at the age of 3-4 (Lightfoot, Cole & Cole, 2013). Charles used his body and his words as a way of communicating how he was feeling towards the doll.

Boys, according to research, are aggressive and they enjoy play outside (Fabes, Martin & Hanish, 2003). Charles chose a male-gendered toy, which proves that part of the way we condition children to play is through a segregated lens. We allow and encourage boys to play with “boy toys” and act like boys and we encourage girls to play with “girl toys” and play with girls. Through this segregated play, we eliminate the child’s creativity and ability to choose on their own. Charles also chose to play with the white action figure over the black action figure. This could also indicate that the child wanted to interact with a toy that looks like the child. While that is subjective, because there is no data saying that the child wanted to play with a toy that looked like him, it is possible due to the data collected that states that children will inherently racially segregate themselves.

Segregated play, as you’ll read through the research, is unhealthy. Charles, was separated from the other children. Charles did not try to engage in the larger group. He was having a tough time and was behaviorally acting different then other children. This is segregated, not through the lens you’ll see through the paper necessarily, but it is segregated play. The child, who behaves differently, needs to be contained and put in a different area from the children who behave and act in the way the teachers prefer. This segregated form of play is not healthy for the child or the children. This way of segregating children, is also isolating and not educational within the realm of play. Play is a social skills training for all children (Wolfberg & Schuler, 1993).

The child, Charles, is a white boy from a local Jewish family. Charles, like other children within the childcare center and the Allston community, come from lower socioeconomic homes. Charles, was clean, well dressed, and was seemingly developed cognitively and physically similar to the other children. The child did not have any specific cultural identifiers, other than the way he was interacting with the toys. The boy was aggressive and volatile towards the toy, the child was also easy to give up and walk away from the situation.

Like other children, who are frustrated that a game / activity is not going their way, he gave up on the alone play time. There is a possibility that the child sees someone in his home behave in an aggressive and frustrated way. Ecological systems, according to Bronfenbrenner (1989), effect the child in several capacities, through their family (Microsystem), their childcare (Mesosystem), parents work places (Exosystem) and through the families culture (Macrosystem). The child can be physically segregated from other children who look, behave, and respond similarly to them because of their families environment.

Bronfenbrenner (1989) believes that children development when their systems are working together and when their parents are the driving force in decision making. This has a context with Charles, because his family is living in a low socioeconomic neighborhood, which could lead to them having to make decision that are less choses and more policy-based needs (i.e. low-cost childcare). This causes a new form of segregation for families, children who are unable to escape the crippling effects of poverty. However that would be an assumption due to the lack of knowledge and education surrounding the child’s family and history in the program.

Discussion of the Research

How does segregated play change our children? Throughout this review, you will read about the ways segregated play creates change within our children, cognitively, and emotionally. Some of the main goals of the articles surround, gender-based segregated play, and race-based segregated play. These two topic areas will lay a foundation for the reader surrounding the positive and negative ways segregated play can affect children.

In articles focusing on racial segregation, authors suggest that understanding institutionalized racism within America is influential to the racial biases of young children through play. This is explained because the segregated play we experience children participating in is related to societal factors and history (Highsmith & Erickson, 2015; Corenblum, 2013; Glied & Gould-Ellen, 2015; Gaither, Chen, Corriveau, Harris, Ambady & Sommers, 2014). These authors allude to racial segregation, as charting the experiences of black individuals from the fifties through the seventies in the United States, as the framework for segregated play.

Racial Segregation was widely popular in schools until 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education overruled segregated schools in order to ensure opportunity for each child (Highsmith & Erickson, 2015). The article “Segregation as Splitting, Segregation as Joining: Schools, Housing, and the Many Modes of Jim Crow” focuses on Flint, Michigan (50-60’s) as they fought to keep black and white children segregated within their school districts. Schools overflowed with white children, while other schools in the booming metropolitan city had small classrooms for black students. Eventually, the US supreme court ruled that all schools must be unsegregated, this caused both black and white students to co-exist within a school building. The authors write that this troubling history of racial segregation continues throughout school setting for black and white children (Highsmith & Erickson, 2015).

Racial segregation is not new in school settings as evidenced by the Highsmith & Erickson (2015) article. However our thoughts surrounding racial segregated play within schools has found new ways of diagnosing the issue. Poverty and environmental effects, according to these authors, can create vulnerability to segregated play because people experiencing poverty are more likely to be around people of the same race (Gaither, Chen, Corriveau, Harris, Ambady & Sommers, 2014; Glied & Gould-Ellen, 2015). According to a study “Monoracial and Biracial Children: Effects of Racial Identity Saliency on Social Learning and Social Preferences” children have primed in-group preferences inherently. The researches of this study say this is because when a child grows up in a certain community, the child tends to feel safe surrounded by people who look and act like them when playing. The authors write that play can be a vulnerable setting for children, this makes children inherently bias towards people who are racially similar because of norms in a Mesosystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1989).

The idea of segregated play being an ecological norm makes the argument that children are inherently drawn to a racially primed groups (i.e. black children want to play with black children because they grew up around black people) (Gaither, Chen, Corriveau, Harris, Ambady & Sommers, 2014; Glied & Gould-Ellen, 2015). Glied & Gould-Ellen (2015) make the argument that children who live in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods, will cognitively develop within a racially segregated mind which will lead children to play and engage with their primed racial group.

A study examined by Corenblum (2013), catalogues a researcher asking black and white children a series of questions regarding who they think would be “nice” and who would be “mean” using a set of dolls (one black and one white). The study found that the children thought their in-group was “nice” and the out-group was “mean” (Corenblum, 2013, p. 357). The author also linked both Cognitive-Development Theory and Social Identity Theory to in-group pride with children.

Preference to segregated play is an argument that has been created by psychologists to educate readers on children’s strong cultural and racial connections to their environment. This strong cultural connection causes the children to be surrounded by people who look, act, and eat like their families do. The authors say this is an operational level of thought production (Corenblum, 2013; Gaither, Chen, Corriveau, Harris, Ambady & Sommers, 2014).

Fabes et al. (2003), refers to segregated play with same-sex children as a way for children to differentiate from other-sex children and create their own norms. Within the Fabes et al. (2003) article, a study is conducted; they measure the ways girls and boys who play with same-sex children in three behavior settings: active-forceful play, play near adults, and stereotyped activity choice.

Through the study the researchers discovered that boys play rougher than girls, girls are more likely to want to play a structured activity, and children are more likely to adapt to gender norms when playing within their same-sex groups (Fabes, Martin & Hanish, 2003). These are factors in which we see how segregated play within gender changes the way our children play.

In articles surrounding inherent preference to same-sex play over other-sex play, authors say that positive encouragement from caregivers provides children with the reinforcement they need in order to continue playing in same-sex groups (Fabes, Martin & Hanish, 2003; Parameswaran & Mathur, 2015). Parameswaran & Mathur (2015) write that this need for same-sex play within children can cause social interaction issues with peer groups involving other-sexed children. The authors also write that this preference, inherent in both girls and boys, is an environmental factor set up by parents. Ecologically children grow up and learn from their micro and mesosystems , they understand and function because of who is around them and what they hear (Parameswaran & Mathur, 2015).

Other authors argue that same-sex play preferences comes from a biological setting (Auyeung, Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Knickmeyer, Taylor, Hackett & Hines, 2009). The researchers, Auyeung et al. (2009), are studying the effects of prenatal testosterone on preferences within children regarding same-sex play. The authors gathered a group of women and tested during specific gestational stages to gage the levels of testosterone within the unborn baby. Then when the child was born they tested the child’s behavior with same and other sexed children through Preschool Activities Inventory (PSAI). Auyeung et al. (2009) wrote that prenatal testosterone creates a preference for same-sex playing within children.

From literature on in-group / out-group preference on play with children the authors write that there are inherent preferences from children regarding racial play and same-sex play (Gaither, Chen, Corriveau, Harris, Ambady & Sommers, 2014; Glied & Gould-Ellen, 2015; Auyeung, Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Knickmeyer, Taylor, Hackett & Hines, 2009; Parameswaran & Mathur, 2015; Fabes, Martin & Hanish, 2003; Corenblum, 2013; Highsmith & Erickson, 2015). The research from the literature says that the preference changes the way our children play, because ecological factors encourage the segregation. These forms of segregated play (race and gender) can stop cognitive development and can cause children to be homogenized towards diversity in thought and creativity. As argued in the beginning of the paper, play produces creativity by challenging children to think. Through segregated play children do not develop diverse thinking therefore eliminating the functionality of play.


The research indicates that children inherently segregate to their individual races and genders when playing with other children and with trusted adults. When originally embarking on this research topic the question was “How does segregated play change our children?” segregated play changes our children by creating a norm with in-group preferences. Educators and parents who encourage and do not stop segregated play informs children that it is normal and good to take pride and stay within your same-sex and racially primed groups.

This thought process changes the ways our children learn and grow, because same-sex and racially segregated play doesn’t allow for kids to engage with diversity or creativity. A child is not challenged by change, a child does not see diversity and develops into a heteronormative being or a colorblind child. Articles have been written and continue to be written to prove that children’s biases come from a biological background and from reinforcement from caregivers. Children develop and grow throughout their lives and are shaped by ecological backgrounds, their environments shape who they will play with and who will play with them.

Research through the history of racial segregation within America (Highsmith & Erickson, 2015), and through the binary norms for same-sex play (Fabes, Martin & Hanish, 2003) allows us to develop conclusions to educate caregivers on non-segregated play. The way researchers engage the readers is through the power of knowledge. The readers learn more about ways to ignite creativity and create change in the way our children play in order to make them smarter and well-rounded. Diversity in education, and environment matters.

Children who are not exposed to diversity, are likely to question it, the child observed in lieu of this paper, Charles, was not engaged or excited about playing with the female-gendered toys. Charles played with the action figures, he did not touch the cooking set, the barbies, nor did he play with the black action figures. Charles was focused on playing with the one action figure. It is not believable that Charles chooses not to play with the racially and gender biased toys, because he doesn’t want to leave his comfort zone. However reviewing the observation of Charles, one could argue that Charles is invested in his action figures because of an inherent bias towards male-gendered toys due to his caregivers’ reinforcement of gender and racial norms. This would align with the research done by within this essay.

Future Research and Applied Directions

Research has shown that there are biological, ecological, and inherent biases towards segregated play. Much of the research has focused on the ways that children play and interact with their in-group preferences, the research is didactic in the way that it introduces the readers to challenges of preferences play, and is biased. The research does not argue that segregated play is pedagogical. Readers learn about the ways that same-sex play and racially segregated play is unhealthy for the cognitive behavioral development of the child, and it would be better for readers to learn about the ways that creativity is enhanced by the play of children in one group outside of group pride.

The articles and research studies were incredibly binary-focused. Specifically when reading about same-sex segregated play, the children were all biologically male or female. While this has to do with population of transgendered individuals within the studies, the studies could have offered an explanation on the binary bias. This binary focus is similar to the racially segregated play research, a vast majority of the articles found, except for Gaither et al. (2014), focused on white and black children. The articles focused on the ways the two raced children chose their in-group preference when deciding who they trusted.

There are a limited amount of articles surrounding bi-racial, non-white, and non-black children. Research with other racial groups should be a priority in the upcoming years. The research topic of other racial groups preferences would also be interesting due to lack of cultural / natural history other racial groups have within the United States. It might also show the ways other raced children are raised in the United States in a cultural manner, without a trauma history affiliated with the white population.


Auyeung, B., Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Knickmeyer, R., Taylor, K., Hackett, G., & Hines, M. (2009). Fetal Testosterone Predicts Sexually Differentiated Childhood Behavior in Girls and in Boys. Psychological Science, 20, 144-148.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1989). Ecological Systems Theory. Annals of Child Development, 6, 187-249.

Corenblum, B. (2013). Development of Racial–Ethnic Identity Among First Nation Children. J Youth Adolescence Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43, 356-374. doi:10.1007/ s10964-013-0007-5

Fabes, R., Martin, C., & Hanish, L. (2003). Young Children’s Play Qualities in Same-, Other-, and Mixed-Sex Peer Groups. Child Development, 74(3), 921-932. Retrieved November 22, 2015, from Society for Research in Child Development

Gaither, S., Chen, E., Corriveau, K., Harris, P., Ambady, N., & Sommers, S. (2014). Monoracial and Biracial Children: Effects of Racial Identity Saliency on Social Learning and Social Preferences. Child Dev Child Development, 85(6), 2299–2316-2299–2316.

Glied, S., & Gould-Ellen, I. (2015). Housing, Neighborhoods, and Children’s Health. The Future of Children, 25(1), 135-153.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). How Gesture Promotes Learning Throughout Childhood. Child Development Perspectives, 106-111.

Highsmith, A., & Erickson, A. (2015). Segregation as Splitting, Segregation as Joining: Schools, Housing, and the Many Modes of Jim Crow. American Journal of Education, 121(4), 563-595. Retrieved November 22, 2015.

Lightfoot, C., Cole, M., & Cole, S. (2013). The development of children (7th ed.). New York; Worth.

Parameswaran, G., & Mathur, S. (2015).  Gender Neutrality in Play of Young Migrant Children An Emerging Trend or an Outlier? American Journal of Play, 7(2), 174-200.

Ramsey. (1998). Diversity and Play: Influences of Race, Culture, Class, and Gender. 10-30.

Wolfberg, P., & Schuler, A. (1993). Integrated play groups: A model for promoting the social and cognitive dimensions of play in children with autism. J Autism Dev Disord Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 23(3), 467-489.

Appendix A

Name of child (alias): Charles

Date of birth: April 21, 2012.

Observer’s Name: Natasha Al-Rafie

Date of Observation: 11/16/2015

Time of observation: 1:30pm – 2:00pm

Context: The child was at his daycare, in Allston, Massachusetts. The facility is located on a side street within Allston, in a lower income community setting. Allston is a mix of low socioeconomic families and college aged adults. This childcare center was very clean, the kids had access to multiple settings for play and the mission of the childcare center focuses on self-expression and play. Charles is white boy, who is walking, falling, and running normally.

What is the activity? Charles is playing with a white action figure alone.

What is the child doing? Charles was sitting in a play area, with multiple toys spread in front of him. The toys in front of Charles include: a cooking set, 1 black and 1 white action figure, and a barbie doll. Charles chooses the white action figure to play with. Charles begins playing with the action figure by throwing the toy on the ground, growling animalistic-ally. When he throws the white action figure on the ground Charles gets up and jumps on the toy 3 times and does this over and over for approximately 10 minutes. Each time Charles throws the toy he makes a different growling noise. For one of the times he threw the toy on the ground he just started laughing. When Charles is sitting on the ground he is sitting with his knees under his bottom, Charles stands and does not have trouble controlling his body, he does not fall or shift in his legs to keep steady. After growling and throwing his toy, Charles stands up and tries to get his action figure to stand next to him. Charles sits there waiting for the action figure to stand. When the action figure does not stand, Charles begins to walk in a circle screaming and crying. After a few minutes of Charles screaming and crying, he tries to get the white action figure to stand next to him for the second time. It does not work. Charles walks away.

What seems to be the stimulus/reason and goal of this activity? Charles appears to be trying to make noises with his mouth that are new. He laughed and kept throwing the toy to make the noises. Charles was smiling when throwing the white action figure, but became very frustrated when the toy would not stand next to him.

How had the child chosen this activity? Charles chose to play with the white action figure because he had a choice of toys to pick from. There was not a teacher close by, however the teachers did put Charles in that specific area in order to separate him from the other children.

What is the setting? The children at the childcare center just woke up from a nap and they are all in different stations. Some children are playing with multiple children, and some are playing alone. This is a choice on the child’s side: to play with other children or to play alone. Charles was placed in this area by his teachers but his teachers told him that he could leave the area whenever he wanted.

What is the physical setup affecting the activity? Charles is alone in his corner, the area he is in is visibly isolated from the other children. There are book shelves containing toys surrounding the play area that Charles was placed in by the teachers. The room was loud, and all the other children were running around playing in their areas. However, the area Charles was in was quieter than the other spaces, because the bookshelves blocked some of the noise. Charles was the only loud part of his area. There are 20 children in the room at this time, however the teacher mentioned that there are normally more.

Who are the significant people nearby and what are they doing? The teachers were walking around the classroom, watching other children but not playing with any children. One teacher was cleaning the room. When Charles began to scream, the teacher who was cleaning rushed over to observe but did not interrupt the play time.

What do the child’s reactions seem to be? Charles seemed to be happy, he presented as excited and engaged in his play time. Charles did also present as frustrated when he could not get the action figure to stand up correctly. Charles was screaming and crying for moments until he stopped trying to get his action figure to stand up next to him. His reactions also appear to be age appropriate. He is in need of winning, he is attached to one specific toy, and he can easily let go of it when it goes away.

How is the activity carried out? The beginning of the activity was cheerful and aggressive, then as the activity continued into Charles standing his action figure next to his legs, the activity became emotional and overwhelming for Charles.

How seriously does she/he take the process? He took the entire process very serious, whilst in the beginning when he was throwing the toy and jumping on it, he was making sure he was actually jumping on the toy rather than next to the toy. Charles was also very serious when it came to making the animal noises, he made a different noise each time he threw the toy. When Charles was trying to get the action figure to stand up next to him, he was also in a very serious mood. He kept trying to figure out how to get the toy to do what he wanted it to do. However when it didn’t work he walked away.

How does the child handle himself? Charles was very skilled in his walking and running abilities. He was able to control his body and did not fall or waiver when he was trying to get the action figure to stand next to him. When he was jumping up and down on the toy and making animal noises, he was not falling over on impact with the floor. Charles was also hold the toy with all his fingers, they seemed to be tight too.

Is child’s ability equal to the task? Charles has the ability to complete the action, he did not have the patience or willingness to wait to complete the task.

Does his/her mood change throughout the activity? Charles appears to be aggressive. He was aggressively playing with the toys the entire time. His mood was overall aggressive and upbeat until he was over playing.

Is the child satisfied with results? The child was dissatisfied with the results, however when he left to play another game, he left his playing behind and played aggressively with the other children.


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