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Ben Callicott

Why We Should Just Let Toys Be Toys, Especially When They Help Children Learn

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Toys aren’t fussy. They don’t mind who plays with them. In fact, we have it on good authority that toy trucks are fine with girls driving them, as well as boys. We also heard that play kitchens are ok with boys doing the cooking – even if those boys are wearing a bright pink apron.

You can probably see where we’re going with this: if the toys don’t care about gender, why should the adults who make, market and buy those same toys?

When you break it down, it seems odd that different toys should be recommended for different genders and labelled this way in toy shops and online. Can you imagine if the same thing was done when adults went shopping? Picture a gender-sorted supermarket, with one half labelled ‘For men’ – perhaps selling bacon, beer and crisps – and the other labelled ‘For women’, maybe offering leafy salads and the very pinkest of rosé wines.

It seems pretty ridiculous when you look at it in those terms, and a lot of people are arguing that gendered labelling of toys is similarly misguided, unnecessary and even detrimental to children’s play and development.

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Let children choose how they play

Helping lead the charge is Let Toys Be Toys (LTBT), a campaign started in 2012 that asks retailers to scrap gendered labelling of toys in their stores. You know the kind of thing; you walk into a toy shop and see one half of it full of action figures, fearsome monster trucks and science kits, all helpfully labelled: ‘For boys’. The other half of the shop is packed with dolls, princesses and fairy kingdoms, complete with the tag: ‘For girls’, and a lot of pink.

Why does Let Toys Be Toys want to get rid of this? Here’s how the team breaks down the reasoning into four clear points:

  •       Kids should decide for themselves what they think is fun. Why put these limits on play?
  •       Play matters. Children need a wide range of play to develop different skills.
  •       Marketing matters. Directing consumers in this way is restricting children’s play.
  •       The real world has moved on. These gender stereotypes are tired and out of date.

The project is run mostly by parents – all unpaid volunteers – who became frustrated at the type of divisive gender labelling they saw their children exposed to.

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Ask shops to ditch the aisle bias

LTBT send out a petition letter to toy retailers who use gender-specific labelling, asking them to “please sort toys by theme or function, rather than by gender, and let the children decide which toys they enjoy best.”

Encouragingly, some stores have been taking note. So far, 14 retailers have made changes to the way their products are labelled – or promised to do so – after being contacted by the campaign and asked to stop promoting toys as only for boys or girls.

At this point, it’s worth noting that, on the whole, educational toy stores are less likely to use gender-focused signs and imagery – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in some of these stores, as a quick online search will show.

Online engagement plays a big part in Let Toys Be Toys. The campaign uses its hefty social media presence (over 24,000 Twitter followers and 23,000 Facebook ‘likes’), to crowdsource examples of bad – and good – practice. Retailers are then sent the petition and asked to change their ways.

A quick look at the numerous audience posts on the campaign’s Twitter and Facebook feeds show that despite positive action by some retailers, there’s still a long way to go; gendered marketing of toys is still alive and well in today’s world.

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Fellow supporters

Thankfully, Let Toys Be Toys isn’t a lone voice on this subject. Other projects (such as PinkStinks, Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies and ‘gender-cool apparel’ website Princess Free Zone) share LTBT’s vision for a more balanced playing field for children.

And let’s not forget the power of the individual; back in 2011, UK toy shop Hamleys scrapped its separate floors for girls and boys after a Twitter campaign led by blogger Laura Nelson. As far as we know, none of the children who’ve entered Hamleys since have been outraged or demanded to leave over the lack of signage.

Media coverage of gendered toys, and wider gender-stereotyping of children, has also increased hugely over the last few years, and so has public discussion surrounding these subjects.

Reading between the lines

So there is plenty of progress in this area, which is great. But why stop at ‘just’ toys? In March 2014 – on World Book Day – the Let Books Be Books campaign was launched. Are books for children as heavily gendered as toys? With titles like The Gorgeous Girls’ Cookery Book (featuring a cover emblazoned with heart-motif biscuits, cupcakes and – yes – a lot of pink) and The Big Brilliant Colouring Book for Boys’ (complete with big, brilliantly blue cover images of spaceships, footballs, trucks and dinosaurs), widely available, it seems they certainly can be.

Since the launch of Let Books Be Books, ten publishers have agreed to remove the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels from their titles. These include big names in children’s and educational publishing, such as Usborne, Egmont, Buster Books and Ladybird Books.

Crucially, though, Let Toys Be Toys isn’t basing its quest just on assumption or intuition; there are plenty of scientific studies and a lot of academic research suggesting that labelling toys in this way can have detrimental effects.

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How toys affect children’s play

Speaking to NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children), Judith Elaine Blakemore – professor of psychology and associate dean of Arts and Sciences for Faculty Development at Indiana University−Purdue University in the United States – discusses a study on the impact of toys on children’s play.

In the study, toys traditionally associated with being ‘for boys’ were seen as violent, competitive, exciting and dangerous, while ‘girls’ toys’ were found to be associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing and domestic skill.

Interestingly, educational toys were often classified as neutral or ‘moderately masculine’. Based on the research, Blakemore states her message to educators and parents loud and clear: ‘If you want to develop children’s physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills, toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to do this.’

Elsewhere, Christia Spears Brown, psychology professor and author of ‘Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes’, takes the discussion a step further. Writing for Psychology Today about US retail giant Target removing gendered toy labelling in 2015, Brown argues that: ‘Every time a boy shies away from the doll aisle (an evitable consequence of labeling it for girls), he misses out on a chance to develop the nurturing and caretaking skills that will be helpful when he becomes a dad.’

When girls similarly ‘shy away’ from construction toys (an ‘evitable consequence’ of labelling such toys ‘for boys’), they miss out on using spatial skills that will be needed in later school life, such as maths lessons, says Brown.

Here’s how she sums up her point: ‘Labels drive these choices. If more stores followed the lead of Target, it would be an important step in kids becoming more well-rounded, more successful individuals.’

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The big question: does it really matter?

By now, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if there’s simply too much being read into the idea. Perhaps a few ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels in toy stories aren’t going to make any difference to how your child plays and develops? Does it really make a difference in the grand scheme of things?

In an article for The Guardian, bearing the headline ‘Are pink toys turning girls into passive princesses?’, science writer and broadcaster Kat Arney asks the same question.

‘Does it actually matter? Considering everything I’ve found out about this subject recently, I can’t help feeling that it does.’

Labelling, colour-coding and marketing toys based on gender leads to a lack of active, challenging, educational toys for girls, says Arney; it is these toys which encourage development of spatial and analytical skills – and therefore it is these skills that girls are missing out at an early age without the toys. Instead, the current situation, she argues, is far from ideal: ‘[girls are] pushed towards being passive princesses, surrounded by fashion dolls, kiddie make-up and miniaturised vacuum cleaners. And at the same time, boys are denied opportunities for more social and imaginative play.’

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s not just children’s play that could be affected by gender-labelled toys. Some argue that this type of labelling during a child’s developmental years can have negative effects in the long-term, too.

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Gendered toy marketing and employment down the line

Writing in New Scientist, Cordelia Fine – Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne and author of ‘Delusions of Gender’ – says that ‘the detrimental effects of this kind of marketing, though clearly only one factor in a mix of many influences on the young, may run broader and deeper. It polarises children into stereotypes.’

It’s possible that these stereotypes could impact what choices people make and what options are available to them later in life. In her article, Fine also flags up a UK Parliamentary debate on ‘gender-specific marketing’ of toys. A lot of the discussion focuses on how this kind of marketing steers girls away from playing with scientific and technological toys – which isn’t exactly helping to boost the low number of women in STEM subject (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) employment.

As Jenny Willott  – at the time speaking as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – puts it during the discussion: ‘The way we play as children informs the skills we develop and how we perceive ourselves… That has a significant impact on how they then develop, and on their future career aspirations.’

She goes on to say that if girls don’t get the feeling of accomplishment that boys repeatedly experience from design and building-focused toys, those same girls will go on to feel less confident, which can then lead to girls ‘assuming’ that they just aren’t good at STEM subjects.

‘Assumptions and stereotypes about girls’ abilities and interests – the perception that certain subjects, just like certain toys, just “aren’t for you” – go on to shape the choices girls make at school. Those choices have significant implications,’ says Willott.

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So, what’s the answer?

One part of the solution is, of course, exactly what Let Toys Be Toys has been campaigning for: scrapping gendered labelling of toys and books. It would be great if toy stores, websites and book retailers far and wide didn’t feel they have to use these unhelpful signposts to ‘suggest’ or recommend which children play with which toys.

The other thing, of course, is to give children access to toys that help them discover and develop, without restricting or pigeonholing based on gender (or anything else, in fact). Educational toys are key here, but let’s make sure we remember that ‘boys’ learning toys’ look exactly the same as ‘girls’ learning toys’ – mostly because they’re the exact same toys!

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Breaking down barriers in educational toys

We can’t help thinking that a friendly wooden robot that helps children learn about computer programming is a pretty great example of an exciting educational toy. (For more on the topic, see our article on The History of Educational Toys.) If you hadn’t guessed already, this is where Cubetto comes in.

It almost goes without saying that Cubetto is keen to help both girls and boys learn to code. There’s no gender-labelling here, because – well – last time we checked, kids of both genders love robots.

It’s no secret that learning about technology from an early age is useful for all children, girls and boys alike. We’ve already covered the fact that we need more women in STEM employment, and providing STEM toys for toddlers of both genders, to help them learn about these subjects, is a positive step forward.

Just think about how toys for toddlers have evolved over the years. We’re now at a point where many parents want STEM toys especially for toddlers, to help their children learn while they play, creatively, from a young age.

In Cubetto’s case, that creative play means no staring at screens, either; this robot helps kids learn about tech with little more than colourful blocks, a simple control board and a friendly smile. No fairy princesses, no growling monster trucks, no gender-biased labels; none needed.

We’ll just carry on letting robots be robots. It’s worked out pretty well so far.

 

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