Why All Toys Should Be for All Children

Have you ever been struck by the wave of pink and blue as you step into a children’s toy shop? A treasure trove of dolls, princesses and glitter on one aisle and trucks, cars and superheroes on the other? Immediately we know which toys are meant for girls, and which toys are meant for boys.

And why not? Is this such a problem? While it might appear trivial, research shows that playing with toys is important in the development of children - both emotionally and intellectually. And according to Lisa Dinella, associate professor at Monmouth University, “Both genders lose out if we put children on one track and they can’t explore.”

None of us want our kids to lose out. And so, in this article Sally Dear, founder of Ducky Zebra, shares 4 reasons why gendered toys can be harmful to children, and some tips on how we can overcome this.

  1. Gendered Toys Can Limit Children’s Opportunities

Do we want our girls to grow up being able to fix and build things? And do we want our boys to grow up showing kindness and care? For most of us, the answer will be a resounding yes. And yet the toys we offer children - and in turn the learning opportunities they're given - don’t always support this.

The traditional masculine toys of blocks and puzzles, for instance, encourage visual and spatial skills, while the traditional feminine toys of dolls and prams encourage communication and social skills. If we only offer our children the toys traditionally attached to their gender, there’s a risk we’re limiting their development and interests. Research shows that this can go on to affect decisions and choices later in life, including subject choices, career paths and mental health.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, by removing the girl/boy label, we can allow children “to explore their interests [based on their own preferences], not according to how society pigeon holes them according to their gender.”

TIP: When playing with children remove the label of ‘girl toy’ and ‘boy toy’ - to open up more opportunities for everyone.

  1. Gendered Toys Perpetuate Stereotypes

Children’s brains are like sponges. They’re busy absorbing what’s going on to make sense of the world around them. The toys they play with contribute to this.

According to parenting author, Melinda Wenner Moyer, research shows that "the more gendered the toys are that children play with, the more strongly they believe in gender stereotypes when they are older.”

Take dolls and prams for example. Often, they’re marketed towards girls. This can encourage children to believe “only girls play with dolls”, which may result in them going on to think that only mums care for babies. Similarly, marketing cars to boys may encourage children to believe “only boys play with cars”. Again, this can result in them going on to think that only men should have jobs relating to cars, engines and machinery.

TIP: It’s easy to reinforce stereotypes, especially if we hark back to the toys we played with when we were young. By being aware of our own biases and actively encouraging all children to play with all toys, we can help to break these stereotypes.

3. Gendered Toys Can Limit Girls’ Exposure to STEM

We’ve previously referred to blocks and puzzles as traditional masculine toys. Building a tower or playing with Lego allows children to learn about balance, gravity, space and shapes. They encourage children to question how things work, learn through trial and error and be comfortable with making mistakes (after all, it’s fun when the building blocks fall down). They introduce children to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) from an early age.

While we’re thankfully seeing a shift, there are still many STEM toys that target boys primarily. This means that some girls will have less exposure and opportunity to develop these important skills. Lego acknowledges this problem. In a recent study they identified that: “girls are typically encouraged into activities that are more cognitive, artistic and related to performance compared to boys who are more likely to be pushed into physical and STEM-like activities.”

TIP: Actively encourage all children to play with toys that help them: 1) question how things work, 2) become familiar with different shapes and sizes and 3) experiment through trial and error

  1. Gendered Toys Can Affect Boys’ Social Development

Many of us are aware of the negative impact of gender stereotypes on girls. But this is also the case for boys. According to the same Lego study, parents are 5 x more likely to encourage girls to engage in dance and dressing up than they are for boys.

Dressing up, playing with dolls and creative pretend play allow children to learn early language skills and the cognitive sequencing of events. They also help them to learn empathy and care for others. Why then, don’t we encourage more boys to do the same?

According to not only pink and blue, when boys play with dolls they are often “humiliated both overtly [by] adults taking dolls away … and telling them that dolls are for girls - and more subtly [by] frowning, lack of encouragement and offering alternative toys.” It’s not surprising therefore that 71% of boys surveyed by Lego feared being teased if they played with a toy associated with the other gender. For many boys, this means they lack the opportunity to develop important social and communication skills.

TIP: Actively encourage all children to play with toys that: 1) support creative pretend play (i.e. pretend kitchen, cafe or shop) and 2) support empathy and care for others (i.e. playing with a doll).

All Toys Are for All Children

It can often feel overwhelming, especially when there are so many toys available. If we take the view that “all toys are for all children” it can, however, give us a very good starting point.

If you’re unsure where to buy toys that avoid the girl/boy label or pink/blue divide, Let Toys be Toys and not only pink and blue offer a great list of suggestions.

About the author, Sally Dear

Sally is a mum of two and founder of Ducky Zebra. She left her career in marketing after growing frustrated with the outdated gender stereotypes found in high street kids' clothing. Ducky Zebra's mission is to inspire kindness and confidence in children through colourful, sustainable clothing. Their unisex designs are free from stereotypes, and their clothing is fun and colourful. For every garment bought, they donate £1 to charity.

Want to find out more? You can find Sally on Instagram and Facebook @DuckyZebra, or browse their website at www.duckyzebra.com