Are Gendered Toys Impacting Childhood Development?

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For the adult, play may seem a distant memory, but for the child, play is a major and defining part of life. Most of this play is done with household toys, with toys not just being items for fun, but also tools that children can use to learn about a host of important life concepts, including gender. One essence of good parenting is to teach your child basic values of life and respect. So, is it possible that the toys we’re buying our children are sending them mixed messages? A UK campaign called ‘Let Toys be Toys’ is suggesting that people are tired of toys being labelled for one gender only.

Gendered toys limit exploration

Christia Brown, an associate professor at Kentucky University, states that babies do not care about gender-specific toys until they are taught the general expectations of their gender. At a very young age, they will play with anything, until around the age of 3-5 years. Children at that age, will be much more susceptible to following instruction about the expected divide between genders, says Brown, the author of “Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes”.

According to Brown, in experiments, most girls don’t immediately gravitate towards dolls and princess dress-up, but are actually more likely to play with trucks if they see other girls playing with the same truck. Toys help children to learn new skills and to develop cognitively and intellectually. They can help with learning language and through the use of toys such as Lego blocks, can even help develop spatial skills. According to Lisa Dinella, a professor at Monmouth University, if we put children down a specific one-way track, they are likely to lose not just in their ability to explore at a particular moment, but also overall development.

Children pay a social cost for crossing genders

According to Dinella, every decision you make, from the theme colour of the child’s party to the clothes they wear, begins to define gender for them. Every time that they do not subscribe to communally-agreed rules, they may pay a price, Dinella suggests. Elizabeth Sweet, a lecturer in sociology at the University of California, Davis, explains that until recently, toys have always been divided along expected gender roles.

Girls’ toys would usually reflect qualities such as motherhood or homemaking while boy toys would suggest signs of careers such as engineers, military or doctors. Nowadays, says Sweet, marketing has shifted the direction to, rather than reflect societal roles, focus on fantasy figures. Girls’ toys are princesses and pop stars, while boys’ toys have shifted to action figures and superheroes. Toys are, effectively, adult ideas of what it is that kids want. Very rarely do we think of the impacts when this idea is unrealistic and unachievable. According to Sweet, they are more often than not exaggerated ideas of femininity and masculinity.

According to Brown, all toys are essentially gender neutral at the point of creation, but the marketing of them is usually not. Ideally, toys could be marketed by category, so that we have puzzle toys and children’s bikes. They could exist in all the colours of the rainbow and marketed to all kids equally. Children could choose toys based on personal preference, says Sweet, rather than gender expectations. Dinnella holds that toys are brilliantly useful for aiding a child’s imagination, so why market them in a way that limits their possibilities?