Should Toys be Gender Specific?

This Christmas, a group of people are lobbying major retailers to remove overt gendering from the toys that they sell. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign is hoping to stop retailers from grouping products as “Boy’s Toys” and “Girl’s Toys”, as they believe that these labels help to reinforce gender stereotypes. They also hope to reduce the prevalence of pink and blue colour schemes being used to market toys for specific genders.

Some parents do not agree with the campaign, as they feel that it is a trivial issue which is taking attention away from bigger problems. However, learning development experts continue to promote the idea that the toys which a child plays with before the age of 5 will help to shape their development. For example, building block toys help children to develop problem-solving skills and spatial awareness skills which are useful for practical tasks and jobs in later life. On the other hand, toy kitchens are ideal for helping children to build their cognitive skills. It is therefore important that children are able to play with a wide range of different toys.

Many adults also argue that the campaign is irrelevant because their male child will always choose the toy truck, whilst their daughter will always choose the doll. Nonetheless, a large number of studies have been carried out which suggest that children do not show a gender preference for toys until they have been in a position to learn about the gendered ideas of society.

When children accompany their parents to the shops and see that toys are divided into two distinct aisles, they understand the cues which are being given to them. Following an experience like this, the child is then more likely to choose a toy which they believe is right for their gender. In one experiment, researchers placed a selection of miscellaneous toys into “girl boxes” and “boy boxes”, before letting children pick which toys they wanted to play with. Girls predominantly choose toys from the “girl box”, whilst boys choose items from the “boy box”.

Leading sociologists and gender specialists are keen to support the campaign, arguing that imposing rigid labels onto toys could be harmful for child development. Assigning gendered labels to toys can increase feelings of anxiety amongst children who may be worried about playing with the wrong toy. Before 3, children are likely to play with whatever toy is put in front of them. Any gender cues that they pick up on will come from their parents or others in the room. Negative cues from adults about the appropriateness of toys will be picked up by infants. Older children will start to take their cues from other things, such as the colour scheme of the product. There is strong gender development phase between the ages of 3 and 5, and interactions during this time period can have a lasting effect. Experts believe that gender anxiety during this phase may have psychological effects for years to come.

Campaigners also argue that giving toys a gendered colour scheme is a trick that was invented by marketers as a way to sell more products. Colour schemes were only introduced in the last 20 – 30 years to fit into gender stereotypes. Marketers realised that they could encourage families with multiple children to buy new toys if they were able to ascribe gender to certain objects. It is now possible to buy different versions of the same toy in both pink and blue, depending on the gender of the child that the toy is being purchased for.

Regardless of whether the campaign succeeds or not, there is still a stigma which needs to be overcome. If adults are unable to change their opinions about specific toys and games being right for specific genders, then it is unlikely that toys will stop holding such deep meaning to children. A male child wearing a princess dress is still likely to draw comments from people, even though it may be socially acceptable for a female child to dress up in a superhero costume. Any change in children’s toys needs to be accompanied by a widespread shift in the adult mindset in regards to gender issues.

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