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When Children's Play Involves Sexuality
Authors: Jessica Dunn with Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE

The term “sex play” is used to describe the ways that children play using sex themes. Examples of sex play are masturbation, playing doctor, and undressing to show their bodies. Sex play is normal. Many children do these things. If children seem to do them all the time, though, there could be a problem.

Think about how you could use children’s sex play to teach children about sexuality and privacy. When you notice their play, you may be able to figure out what children are thinking. Some children may be very interested in birth and pretending to be pregnant. That might happen when a mother is expecting. That kind of play is helpful to the children. Other children may be fascinated with bodies and differences. If they undress themselves, that is a good time to talk about the differences between girls and boys. But children also need to learn to stay dressed in public. If a child is doing things that are not appropriate in your childcare setting, work with that child. Set rules about privacy. Tell them about “good touch” and “bad touch.” Help them learn about sexuality, and help them learn how to get help if someone does something inappropriate.

Many children choose sex play because they are bored or not interested in other things that are happening. It is helpful to keep children busy. Give them positive choices of activities. Let children have active, physical choices every day. If a child begins sex play, you may still be able to distract him with another choice.


Many children touch their private parts. That is normal. Masturbating is a natural way for children to explore their bodies. It is also a way they can relax or feel better.

But some people believe that masturbation is not “right.” While some ethical or religious groups teach that masturbation is OK, others teach that it is wrong. As a childcare provider, it is not your job to tell the child what to believe. Providers need to respect parents’ views on this topic.

If you see a child masturbating, you can make sure the child understands that it should be done only in private. Encourage the child to choose another activity. You also might want to talk to his parents. Tell the parents how you would like to deal with the situation. Ask for their feedback and support.

Exploring each others’ bodies

Children may become interested in showing other children their bodies and seeing others’ bodies. “Playing doctor” is a common way for children to do this. Children might play in this way because they are curious or just because they are learning about sex. Children might touch each other’s private body parts in this type of sex play. Tell the children that this is not the way they should touch other children. Again, it would help to get the children involved in a different activity.

Same- vs. opposite-sex play

Very young children often play with both boys and girls. Later, they are more likely to play with children who are the same as them. But it is normal for children to be interested in both opposite- and same-sex children. Childcare providers do not need to worry if two boys are cuddling, or if two girls are “playing doctor.” Playing with a child of the same sex does not mean they are gay. Playing with children of the opposite sex does not mean that they interested in being sexual.

You also do not need to worry if a boy dresses up like a girl or a girl dresses up like a boy. A boy who plays with girls’ toys probably just likes those toys. Also, boys may take the role of the “Mommy” when playing house and girls may be the “Daddy.” These behaviors are appropriate and normal as children are learning about the world through play.

Special note: Children who spend a lot of time in sex play and talking about sexuality may have special needs. It is important for you to recognize signs of sexual abuse and know how to respond.

Share information with parents about children’s sex play and what parents can expect from children of different ages. (This link is targeted at children between the ages of 3 and 7.) Talk to them about common questions and how they can build their confidence in talking with children about sexuality.

Go to:  • Homosexuality
           • HIV/AIDS
           • Tips for providers
           • Red flags – recognizing sexual abuse
           • Books for parents and children
Sexuality education policy statement

For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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