One of the many, and perhaps most striking, paradoxes of gender studies is that, despite decades of concerted efforts, the very existence of sex differences remains debated  — . It is well documented that with increasing age, children are more likely to engage in social play, proceeding from less to more mature forms of social interactions  ,  ,  , . Introduction Human sex differences are a perennially hot topic that not only grips the public interest, but that has triggered a great deal of scientific focus from biological to social sciences.
Following a cross-sectional design, children aged from 2 to 6 years old, divided into four age groups, were observed during outdoor free play at nursery school. To this end, children's play behavior was observed under naturalistic conditions at nursery schools during self-selected activities and spontaneous peer-groups. This developmental perspective contributes to resolve apparent discrepancies between single-snapshot studies. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are properly credited. We investigated whether girls show consistently more socially oriented and skilful forms of peer play and interactions than same-age boys from 2 to 6 years old, when most children begin to experience peer social interactions, or whether the sex difference changes as children grow older. Females display more emotional expression and are more skilled at decoding others' emotions  ,  and understanding others' thoughts  — . In childhood, these abilities are related to general social competence, especially in dealing with peers  ,  , and to different interaction and communication styles that prefigure differences in women's and men's interpersonal goals  , . As play provides an excellent window into children's social development, we investigated whether and how sex differences change in social play across early childhood. Thus, age groups were characterized by distinct social participation profiles Fig. It is well documented that with increasing age, children are more likely to engage in social play, proceeding from less to more mature forms of social interactions  ,  ,  , . Moreover, the magnitude, consistency and stability across time of the differences remain an open question, especially during childhood. Moreover, the differences reported are not especially large or consistent throughout childhood . They were also observed more frequently interacting with adults than older children for whom this proximity became rare. Yet the developmental dynamics of sex differences has been rarely investigated, with one notable exception, but that focused on within-sex variation rather than between-sex differences . Females are usually assumed to be more socially oriented and skilful than males. Nevertheless, while boys catch up and girls move on towards more complex play, sex differences in social play patterns are reversed in favor of boys at the following ages, such as in associative play at 4—5 years and cooperative play at 5—6 years. There is some evidence in support of this view. Here, we present evidence that sex differences are not stable over time. One pervasive stereotype about sex-related differences is that girls and women are more socially oriented and skilful than boys and men  — . Although the literature provides some empirical evidence, the picture is not as simple and univocal as described. From the age of 4—5 years, children's sociality changed abruptly, notably associative play predominated at 4—5 years and cooperative play predominated at 5—6 years. Social and structured forms of play emerge systematically earlier in girls than in boys leading to subsequent sex differences in favor of girls at some ages, successively in associative play at 3—4 years, cooperative play at 4—5 years, and social interactions with peers at 5—6 years. To cover all children's social activities, we also recorded social interactions with peers when children are not playing, but are involved in sustained social exchanges mostly conversations, which are more frequent in older children  , and social interactions with adults, as adults were present on playgrounds. Received Jul 29; Accepted Dec Results Developmental trends over the preschool years Children's social play showed important changes during the preschool period, becoming more peer-oriented and structured with age Fig.
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