Preschool Girls Play to Win

by Ann Douglas

Girls Play to WinGirls aren't any less competitive than boys. But the strategies they use to compete are a little more subtle.

That's the key finding to come out of a study conducted by psychologists at Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts and published online in the journal Animal Behavior in June, 2008.

The study examined the competitive behaviors of preschool-aged girls as compared to preschool-aged boys. The researchers divided 87 four-year-olds into 15 all-female groups and 14 all-male groups. Each group was made up of three children. They then provided the children with one, two, or three animal-shaped puppets to play with.

When the groups were given just one puppet to play with, the group members began to compete for access to the puppet.

Boys' Aggression

Members of the all-male groups started out by asking for control of the puppet. If the boy who had the puppet wouldn't surrender it, they resorted to aggressive strategies: The other boys would grab at the puppet or run after the boy who had the puppet.

Girls' Aggression

Members of the all-female groups formed alliances against the girl with the puppet to try to psychologically coerce her into giving it up. The girls who did not have the puppet ignored the girl who had the puppet and would not allow her to play with them. They also hid on her and talked about her, behaviors the psychologists described as forming "exclusive coalitions."

Odd Girl Out

The researchers noted that their finding may explain why females in general find it more difficult to tolerate their best female friend having other female friends: They may be protecting themselves from ending up on the wrong side of such an exclusionary alliance.

Even four-year-old girls have already mastered the number one rule in girl-world politics: You don't want to be the odd girl out.

What have you noticed? Share your thoughts!

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including the bestselling "The Mother of All Pregnancy Books." She regularly contributes to a number of print and online publications, is frequently quoted in the media on a range of parenting-related topics, and has appeared as a guest on a number of television and radio shows. Ann and her husband Neil live in Peterborough, Ontario. with the youngest of their four children. Learn more at her site,

Copyright © Ann Douglas. Permission to publish granted to

Medical Reference:
Sex differences in children's formation of exclusionary alliances under scarce resource conditions. Joyce F. Benenson, Timothy J. Antonellis, Benjamin J. Cotton, Kathleen E. Noddin, Kristin A. Campbell. Department of Psychology, Emmanuel College, U.S.A. Received 10 June 2007. Revised 28 July 2007. Accepted 15 January 2008. Available online 16 June 2008. MS. number: A10791R.