Childhood Studies Color Symbolism and Child Development
Megan Fulcher, Hannah O'Connor
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0270


The world around us is full of colors and we are affected by, think about, and make decisions based on the colors we see. Colors are often used to create gendered categories to mark which toys and activities children can (or cannot) interact with. We have color preferences that often reflect gendered parts of our identity. This article reviews current literature on color symbolism that is drawn primarily from studies in Western populations. Except where specifically mentioned, these findings generalize primarily to Western children. By preschool, boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink and begin to color their vision of the world with gendered colors. These colors that children include as part of their gendered identity surround them and most of the things they do. There are colors that carry symbolism outside of gender particularly in representing emotions. This article is divided into multiple sections. Color and Gender in Society introduces research on how gendered colors surround children and how children use these cultural cues to decide how to behave. Color Preferences reviews the history of gendered colored preferences as well as the developmental timing of such preferences across culture. The Impact of Color on Performance explores how materials of different colors impact children’s performances perhaps by cueing children to gendered stereotypes about performance. Color and Clothing explores how the clothes that children wear or are dressed in express gendered preferences and expectations. Color in the Environment reports on research involving how the color of interior designs impacts children’s behaviors. Additionally, it investigates which colors children prefer in their own designs. Color and Marketing shows how corporations use color to promote branding to children and convince children to buy products. Finally, Color and Emotion includes research about how children envision emotions as a color when expressing themselves.

General Overview of Color Symbolism

Gieseler 2018 finds that even before they are born, color is used to mark children’s assigned gender, specifically according to del Giudice 2017—boys with blue and girls with pink. Weisgram, et al. 2014 finds these colors carry with them a long list of expectations for appearance, behaviors in play, in social relations, and in cognitive tasks. By preschool, LoBue and deLoache 2011 reports that children typically prefer gendered colors, and gender differences in color preferences last into adulthood. Saito 1996 shows that culture intersects with gender to impact color preferences.

  • del Giudice, Marco. “Pink, Blue, and Gender: An Update.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 46.6 (2017): 1555–1563.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10508-017-1024-3

    Reviews the history of pink and blue as gendered colors.

  • Gieseler, Carly. “Gender-Reveal Parties: Performing Community Identity in Pink and Blue.” Journal of Gender Studies 27.6 (2018): 661–671.

    DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2017.1287066

    At gender reveal parties, there is a display of pink or blue to indicate the apparent sex of a fetus, which underlines the cultural importance of babies’ genders.

  • LoBue, Vanessa, and Judy S. deLoache. “Pretty in Pink: The Early Development of Gender-Stereotyped Colour Preferences.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology 29.3 (2011): 656–667.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835x.2011.02027.x

    By two years old, girls pick pink more than do boys. By two and a half years old, girls prefer pink over other colors and boys begin avoiding pink. Understanding the development of gender preferences is important to understanding subsequent gender-related stereotypes and behaviors.

  • Saito, Miho. “Comparative Studies on Color Preference in Japan and Other Asian Regions, with Special Emphasis on the Preference for White.” Color Research & Application 21.1 (1996): 35–49.

    DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6378(199602)21:1%3C35::AID-COL4%3E3.0.CO;2-6

    In a series of three studies, researchers asked participants to choose their three favorite colors along with their three least favorite colors. Participants’ responses varied as a function of gender but also as a function of geographical location.

  • Weisgram, Erica S., Megan Fulcher, and Lisa M. Dinella. “Pink Gives Girls Permission: Exploring the Roles of Explicit Gender Labels and Gender-Typed Colors on Preschool Children’s Toy Preferences.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 35.5 (2014): 401–409.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2014.06.004

    When presented with masculine and feminine toys, children were interested in toys that matched stereotype categories (“for boys” or “for girls”) and colors (blue and pink) for their gender and were not interested in those that did not.

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