Gender & Toys

“He has a doll?!” my mother exclaimed, disapproval ringing in her words. She couldn’t believe I would let my three year old son push a babydoll around in a miniature stroller. It was fine for his six year old sister to play house, but she wanted her grandson to embrace more masculine toys. “Here, honey, push this dump truck,” she offered. He smiled and continued to tend his ‘baby’.

For decades, manufacturers (and grandparents) have divided toys into gendered categories. Girls got dolls, ballerina tutus, princess castles, and play kitchens. Boys got footballs, tool belts, dinosaurs, and chemistry sets. But a new study by Lego finds that children are rejecting these stereotypes. More than 75 percent believe that boys can be dancers and girls play sports.

Yet the same study shows that many parents still unconsciously buy into gender roles that influence which toys they think children will like. We assume that boys are more likely to become scientists, athletes, and engineers and that girls are more artistic and creative. So we provide toys geared to these interests and thus unwittingly limit the scope of children’s play.

Toys are a huge part of children’s lives. Whether designed by a company, fashioned out of sticks and rubber bands, or adapted from household items, they serve as resources for spiritual learning as well as pleasure. Dolls offer opportunities to experiment with identities and practice empathy. A wooden spoon on a pot becomes a way to express strong feelings. Computer games teach logic and ethical problem-solving. Kicking a ball among friends builds relationships.

Toys help children experiment with various identities and social roles. They become props for imitating caregivers, superheroes, community helpers, and other professionals. Diverse toys encourage diverse role-playing, which expands the number of vocational identities a child considers accessible. A girl with an erector set can imagine becoming an engineer; a boy with a beading kit can envision a future as a jewelry designer.

When children have access to a wide variety of toys, they are also able to explore more possible interests. Even when children gravitate to specific activities at a young age, they still need access to diverse toys to fuel curiosity about other options. Indulge their passions and also offer playthings that expand their horizons. As they continue to explore, they will come to understand themselves, others, and the world around them better.

Of course, having access to diverse toys may not mean children feel comfortable playing with them. Adults need to reframe our attitudes about gender and toys so that kids feel free to explore. Children are adept at reading negative reactions. While they might continue to play with a ‘taboo’ toy for a while, social pressure often pushes them back into stereotyped gender lanes. Only when we communicate that toys are nonbinary do we genuinely open up endless possibilities for play, personal identity, and vocational fulfillment.

Children love toys and we love to fulfill their wish lists. But as you do your holiday shopping this December, remember: neither children nor toys should come in pink or blue. Help your child learn something new with an unconventional choice among the gift boxes.

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