Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that when teachers used gender-specific language, such as greeting girls and boys separately, children were more likely to have stereotypical ideas about what activities were appropriate for boys or girls and which gender they preferred to play with.
The researchers observed children aged three to five years from two nurseries over two weeks.
In one nursery, practitioners were asked to use gendered language and divisions, such as asking boys and girls to post their work on separate display boards or getting them to line up on different sides of the room. In the other setting they were told to avoid making any references to gender.
Before and after the study, children's interest in playing with peers of their own sex was assessed and they were asked to match pictures of men and women to occupations and activities.
The study found that 37 per cent of the children in the classroom where gender was not discussed chose to play with children of the opposite sex, compared with only 13 per cent of children in the nursery where gendered language was used. They were also more likely to have gender-stereotypical views, for example that only girls should play with dolls.
The authors say the findings have implications for how practitioners structure classrooms and interact with children. They suggest that using gender-specific language in early years settings should be as unacceptable as making specific references to race.
In another study, children were found to be less likely to help others if they see them doing something that is harmful to someone else.
Research by the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, found that children, like adults, are sensitive to moral behaviours and intentions.
The researchers placed 100 three-year-olds in scenarios with adult actors carrying out various actions involving helpfulness, such as taping together a drawing that is torn; harmfulness, by tearing another person's drawing; intending to harm, by wanting to but not being able to tear another person's drawing; and accidental harmfulness, by not meaning to tear someone else's drawing.
Following this, the adults began playing a game where children's helpfulness was assessed by whether or not they handed them playing pieces they were missing.
Lead study author Amrisha Vaish said, 'The study suggests that children are sensitive not only to others' moral behaviours, but also to the intentions behind them. It sheds light on our understanding of children's moral development and raises questions about our assumptions that young children are not discriminating helpers, but help everyone in the same way.'
The studies are published in the November/December 2010 issue of the journal Child Development.