Across the country, child psychologists, teachers, and many parents report that children at younger and younger ages are increasingly talking about sex and bringing sexual images into their play. So far, the evidence is mostly anecdotal, but the growing number of reports has raised alarms and prompted calls for academic studies.
"Kids normally aren't that interested in sex in the 3-to-10 age group, but we're kind of forcing it on them," says Mary Sinker, a child-development expert at the Kohl Children's Museum in Wilmette, Ill.
Ms. Sinker says childhood is undergoing rapid change, and no one is ready to predict the impact on this generation. But some experts are increasingly concerned that the pervasiveness of sexual images and innuendoes - in everything from TV to toys - may damage children's development. That is prompting calls for restraint on the part of the entertainment and toy-manufacturing industries.
"We've crossed the line from sexism to sexuality, and it's all mixed in together and really confusing for children," says Diane Levin, a professor of child development at Wheelock College in Boston.
Ms. Levin says that children have always had a natural curiosity about their bodies. Questions about the functions of different parts, or where babies come from, or why a little boy is different from a little girl are not unusual. But Levin and other child-development specialists say the questions and language increasingly used by many children indicate that more than natural curiosity is at work.
"The curiosity is definitely there," says Martha Edwards, a psychologist at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in New York. "But because of the images that [children are] seeing, they're definitely getting into a level of detail and specificity that is beyond their ability to comprehend, or the appropriateness of their acting them out."
Several preschool teachers also say there is a "driven" quality to many of the questions and the play they are seeing, a quality that didn't exist even five years ago.
"Kids are getting these ideas and they seem driven to work them out, like they're grappling with things they can't possibly understand, and it disturbs them," says Honey Schnapp, the education director at The Open Center for Children., in Somerville, Mass.
Ms. Schnapp and others say that when a child acts out sexually with great specificity, it is usually seen as an indicator of possible sexual abuse. But the increasing number of incidents of the innocent use of explicit language or images out of context has caused them to reassess.
In Cambridge, Mass., a pre-school teacher walked onto the playground and saw a four-year-old boy lying on top of a four-year-old girl.
"What are you doing?" asked the teacher.
"We're having sex," the little boy said, looking up innocently.
One Manhattan parent found that her son had written a "How to Have Sex Guide," complete with the kind of simple, inaccurate directions one would expect from a seven-year-old. Another heard a young boy express his affection for a little girl by saying, "I really want to rape that Jennifer."
"The way that kids develop scripts for things they don't know how to do yet," Ms. Edwards says, "is usually by having some kind of model, if they're not explicitly trained by their parents." Many children all too often find images and models on television.
Twenty years ago, sex on TV was usually handled by a gentle fade-out. Today, sexual innuendoes and some more explicit scenes are common, even in the 7-to-8 p.m. so-called "family hour."
Many parents, politicians, and child-development experts have raised concerns about that for the last several years. But now, some say the toy-manufacturing industry has gone even further and is marketing toys with sexually inappropriate images to children.
"Baywatch Barbie" is an example, they say. Barbie, with her exaggerated features, is dolled up in clothes just like the skimpily clad women for which the syndicated TV show is famous worldwide.
"Wow!" exclaims the promotion on the back of the box. "Play real lifeguard adventures with Barbie like you see on the hot TV show, Baywatch!" The toy is suggested "for ages over 3 years."
"It is absolutely not appropriate for young children," Edwards says. "It's those very sex-typed, almost cartoonlike images that give kids a very skewed sense of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man."
The television show, about a group of lifeguards' beach adventures, contains sexual innuendoes that can be fairly explicit.
"Kids are seeing more sexual images, and they're trying to figure them out," Levin says. "Then toys like 'Baywatch Barbie' say it's OK to bring them into their play because the toys are there for them, for children to have fun with."
A spokeswoman for Mattel Inc., makers of "Baywatch Barbie," disagrees, saying the toy is intended to show little girls that they can be lifeguards.
"If you watch 'Baywatch,' you'll see it's pretty wholesome in that there's always a moral in the story line, and it's about rescuing and saving people's lives," says Lisa McKendall, Mattel's director of marketing communications.
Ms. McKendall says adults bring a whole different set of values and expectations to toys that children don't. "I think children play in a very pure and innocent way, they don't see toys in terms of sexuality," she says.
"Baywatch" is appropriate for children, McKendall says, but if some parents disagree, it's their responsibility to keep children from seeing it. As for the notice on the box that says the toy is "for ages 3 and up," she says that's from a safety perspective and has nothing to do with the developmental appropriateness of the toy.
"It's a parent's responsibility to determine what products are appropriate for their children based on their age," McKendall says.
Another toy line that has raised concerns is called "Spawn." Based on the best-selling comic-book series, female Spawn characters have exaggerated gender characteristics, carry weapons, and are scantily clad in bizarre outfits. For instance, "She-Spawn" has skulls for a brassiere. The box says "ages 4 and up."
"They're scary, grotesque images which seem to be totally defined by sex, and sex gets equated with violence," Levin says. "They send distorted messages to children who are trying to come to terms with their own sense of gender identity."
Paul Burke, chief of Todd Toys, which makes the Spawn series, says the company is not trying to make "sexist" toys, but high-quality, intricate toys that can compete with fast-moving computer games that many children now play for hours at a time.
"We've got to sell them a toy that will keep their interest for more than two days," Mr. Burke says. "That's what we're up against, competitively, in the electronic age.
Like the Mattel spokeswoman, Burke says the age notice on the box is solely for safety reasons and has nothing to do with the age appropriateness of the toy. In fact, he says, more than half of "Spawn" toy sales are to people over 18. "A lot of collectors buy it," Burke says.
But the Spawn characters have also become the "cool" toy to have for many elementary schoolboys, says seven-year-old Sean Dalao who was examining a Spawn doll at an FAO Schwarz toy store in New York.
"She's cool because of the spikes, and she has wings so she can fly," says Sean of "Cosmic Angela." "And those wings are metal, so when she flies she can also cut off your head."
Some experts think it's important for parents and teachers to start registering their concerns and even boycott such toys. Not all agree: Banning a toy or a TV show can also have the opposite effect, they say. Giving something "forbidden fruit" status may make it more attractive, and thus more profitable.
"I don't think we're going to get it stopped," says Peggy Brick, chairman of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit research center in New York. "We have to prepare our children for the world they're going to be exposed to. That means establishing our own values in our children at the same time they're being exposed to all of this incredibly exploitative stuff."
Others, like Levin, are more optimistic. She and a group of teachers have started Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment (TRUCE). They say that the more adults' awareness is raised about the issue, the more effective they will be as lobbyists for change, and as parents.