The case against gendered toys: stereotypes, narrowed development and curbed creativity

When it comes to choosing toys for your children, you need to look past the pinks and blues to the play value

Experts agree that children should be exposed to an array of different toys as they grow, with a focus on the 'play value' the toy offers. Yuri Shirota / Unsplash
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Last year, Danish toy manufacturer Lego announced it would be working to remove gender bias from its toys. This would include no longer marketing items specifically to girls or boys, but selling products as gender neutral, for whoever wanted to buy them.

The move followed toy manufacturing behemoth Hasbro, makers of My Little Pony, Nerf, Transformers and Play-Doh, who dipped its toes in the non-binary toy waters by expanding its Potato Head brand to include a gender-neutral option.

Lego’s decision was borne out of a report commissioned by the company that investigated how children and parents approach creativity.

Most research on the material culture of childhood has confirmed that toys that reflect strict gender roles have significant impact of children’s personal growth and development
Dr Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, professor of literary theory and gender and women’s studies, American University of Sharjah

The survey of about 7,000 parents and children from seven countries found that gender stereotyping remains high, with 78 per cent of boys and 73 per cent of girls agreeing with the statement: “It’s OK to teach boys to be boys and girls to be girls.”

When it comes to gendered toys, the stats told an interesting story.

While 54 per cent of parents worried that their sons would be made fun of for playing with “girls’ toys”, only 24 per cent of parents of daughters expressed concerns their little girl would be judged for playing with “boys’ toys”.

The results were further evidence of the notion that girls being less valued in society is still being perpetuated.

“Most research on the material culture of childhood has confirmed that toys that reflect strict gender roles have significant impact of children’s personal growth and development,” says Dr Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, professor of literary theory and gender and women’s studies at the American University of Sharjah. “Most gendered boys’ toys encourage more cognitive skills than gendered girls’ toys. In addition, gendered toys can reinforce social expectations regarding gender roles.”

Why are toys gendered?

Toys didn’t used to be gendered. Games such as hula hoops, train sets, spinning tops and rocking horses were historically given to both boys and girls.

What sets past toys apart from their modern-day counterparts is commercialisation.

Historians agree that the mid-1800s proved a turning point in both gendered toys and gendered literature. The shift was subtle at first, with older boys, who would have begun to earn their own money, the first to be targeted as an adolescent consumer group that could be marketed to.

With the growth of the US toy industry in the early part of the 20th century, the gendering of toys became commercially driven, as manufacturers realised there was more money to be made in separating “blue” toys from “pink”.

“It is important to note that both historical and cultural differences regarding gender roles can be seen in the production of toys,” says Dr Golley. “Additionally, the gender roles that shape the production of toys are conceived by the adult manufacturers, rather than by evidence-based research on children’s preferences themselves.”

How do gendered toys affect growth and development?

“Gendering of toys can lead to lack of holistic development by causing a loss of opportunities in childhood,” says Sneha John, clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Camali Clinic: Child and Adult Mental Health. “Since each toy is associated with one or more particular skills, children who grow up in strictly gendered environments are unable to incorporate one half of the necessary skills for personality development.”

John says gendered playthings can narrow the thought process of children, curbing creativity and innovation. "Stereotyped toys would limit the scope of future careers as children may not be allowed to expand their cognitive abilities due to such stereotypes.”

Over time, boys and girls are very likely to associate these stereotypical qualities with themselves and their roles in life
Dr Nawar Al-Hassan Golley

Gendered toys are everywhere, evident in stores with large signs that segregate the sexes, as well as online where you can specifically search for toys by gender and age.

But even if there were no signs in a toy store, you need only look for the colours — the packaging on the girls’ side predominantly pinks and purples, the boys’ darker blues, blacks and greens.

“Gendered toys adhere to a clear gender binary; they usually represent stereotypical masculine characteristics for boys and stereotypical feminine traits for girls,” says Dr Golley. “Boys’ toys, such as trucks, guns and soldiers or superheroes, marketed in dark colours, such as shades of blue, emphasise strength, even aggression, action, and adventure.

"Girls’ toys, such as dolls, ballerinas, princesses and their accessories, such as make-up and jewellery, marketed in soft colours, mainly shades of pink, emphasise softness, caring qualities and certain standards of beauty based on physical attractiveness.

"Over time, boys and girls are very likely to associate these stereotypical qualities with themselves and their roles in life.”

Adventure for boys, nurturing for girls

“Gendered toys are very much the start of us defining who our children are,” says mother-of-three Beth Satterly, who lives in Dubai. “Raising a child should be about finding out who they are and working with that, not trying to make them into something specific. For me, the choosing of toys is the start of all these choices we as parents make that are not necessarily for the good of the child, but more in keeping with our own perception and experiences.”

With play is recognised as a crucial stage in childhood development, a child’s access to an array of toys and play experiences, irrespective of gender, not only helps strengthen their sensory, gross and fine motor skills, but also allows them to learn about the world and their place in it.

Toys marketed to boys are often couched in terms of adventure, action, movement and excitement. They’re also more likely to have an aggression or conflict focus. Whereas toys marketed to girls are usually more sedentary and indoors-based. Pink and passive with an emphasis on appearance — grooming a doll or horse’s hair; creativity — painting and art, or nurturing, such as baby dolls to be taken care of.

“Toys offer our children an opportunity to develop various physical, emotional and social skills,” says Dr Waleed Ahmed, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Abu Dhabi. “Puzzles and blocks like Lego teach spatial skills which is implicated in learning math concepts in the future. Dolls and playhouses may teach cognitive sequencing and language skills. Playing with dolls can also teach empathy, imagination and taking perspective. So, there are ‘harms’ in restricting toy choices to socially constructed and marketing-driven gendered ones.”

How parents can remove stereotypes from the toy box

“Gendered toys send powerful cultural messages about the kind of interests boys and girls should have,” says John. “These limiting gender stereotypes can impact identity development, peer relationships and brain development in both girls and boys.”

While toy manufacturers have attempted some inroads into de-gendering their toys, knee-jerk headlines regarding the “war on childhood” or “brainwashing” of children into denying their gender has made some parents nervous.

“It is hard for parents to swim against the tide and make deliberate choices for their children that do not conform to the pressure of societal expectations for a particular gender,” says Dr Ahmed. “Whether that involves choosing a toy, a themed party or colours of clothes.

"There is what can be described as a ‘social cost’ to the child for such choices made, in the form of being bullied or other well-meaning but negative comments being directed. So, invariably parents play safe and thus unwittingly perpetuate this myth.”

Parents who wish to provide a more genderless approach to play can start by buying toys in neutral colours beyond the omnipresent pinks and blues. Another way is to focus on the play value of the toy, as opposed to who it is ostensibly being marketed at.

“For me, the most important thing, especially if you have more than one child, is to have a generic toy area at home,” says Satterly. “Don’t put the toys you think are specifically for that child in their room. Keep them altogether. Look for toys with play value. Toys that have a range of things that do different things Toys for the imagination. Physical and sensory toys for fine motor skills that focus on development not gender.”

Updated: March 03, 2022, 4:19 AM