Toy stories

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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In the playground, my two-year-old son makes his usual beeline for the red car lying on the grass. Suddenly, he stops as something else catches his eye. He toddles over and the next thing I know, he’s happily pushing a little pink pram with a doll in it. My first instinct is to jump up and direct him back to the car, but I squelch that thought. Why shouldn’t he play with dolls and pink toys?

Playtime matters. Jackie Chan, a registered psychologist at the Child Psychological Development Association in Hong Kong, believes that playtime during the early years is critical for children to build their internal representation of the outside world, through their own experiences. Since a child’s world revolves around playtime, it shapes how they see themselves and others. Toys – and our reactions to them – convey messages to our children of what is appropriate. At the same time, from as young as two years old, children are developing an awareness of gender identities and are very vulnerable to the reactions or suggestions of the people around them.

Separate, but equal?

Girls and boys are inherently different. Most boys develop their spatial and visual abilities faster, while girls mature more quickly in social skills, such as verbal expression. This could help explain why certain types of toys hold more appeal for each gender. However, it’s important to be mindful that different toys also provide different stimulation and skills to our children. Toys that are marketed more to boys typically emphasise adventure and construction, and are believed to improve problem solving and spatial abilities. On the other hand, toys marketed more to girls tend to focus on household activities, fashion and role-play, and serve to enhance creativity and social skills. If we only provide girls and boys with toys based on gender, as viewed by marketers, we run the risk of not helping them develop other areas that are of equal importance. 

In recent years, the gender stereotyping of toys has become more pronounced. Toy manufacturers have exploited the differences between girls and boys by aggressively producing and marketing gender-specific toys to increase sales – more types of different toys equals more sales. Think of the explosion of the “princess culture” and pink everything for girls.

Several retail stores in the UK and US, including Hamleys and Marks & Spencer, recently came under fire for explicitly segmenting their toy departments or company websites into separate girls’ and boys’ sections, each stocked with different items. Dividing toys by gender groups, or using stereotyped advertising and packaging, indirectly tells children who should be playing with which toy. In 2012, Lego launched Lego Friends specifically to target girls. The line features a group of shapely girls in pastel-coloured settings that include a bakery and beauty salon – a big departure from the original Lego product. While this has been a commercial success, Lego Friends was criticised for undermining the original value of the toy due to its simplified construction and reinforcement of gender stereotypes.   

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Play today, career tomorrow

The explicit stereotyping of girls and boys from an early age can have long-term social effects, limiting each gender to certain activities. Consider the relatively small percentage of women involved in science and engineering work today. In the UK, women comprise fewer than 20 per cent of science, research, engineering and technology professionals, according to the Office for National Statistics. In the US, just 13 per cent of engineers are female, says the National Science Foundation. And in Hong Kong, female engineers comprise only six per cent of the total, according to the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers.

In general, toys marketed to young girls offer less opportunity and encouragement to engage in construction or science-related activities, which means fewer opportunities for building their interest in these fields. On the other hand, boys frequently bear ridicule for playing with “girlie”, pink or role-play toys. Ms Urti, a teacher at Woodland Pre-Schools, believes such judgemental ideas introduced when boys are young may contribute to future behavioural issues, such as intolerance and bullying.

These concerns have led to parents’ groups taking action against the explicit stereotyping of toys. The UK-based, parent-led campaign “Let Toys Be Toys” started in 2012 and has seen substantial success in getting retailers to reduce their gender-specific marketing activities and remove divided shopping areas. A similar campaign, “Play Unlimited”, was started in Australia to object similarly to the segregation of toys and to promote a wider range of play experiences for children.

Internationally, a market is also growing to correct the problem. Goldie Blox, launched in 2012, creates building and engineering toys for young girls. The idea was conceived by Debbie Sterling, a female engineer, and the project was crowdfunded in just four days, which demonstrates that more than a few people care. Lego also appears to be trying to find the right balance. This past summer, they launched a Research Institute set online, featuring three trouser-wearing female characters – a palaeontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. The set sold out within a week and received international media coverage and positive feedback.

Toys will be toys

Research conducted by Professor Judith Elaine Blakemore at Indiana University in the US indicates that strongly gender-typed toys might encourage less desirable attributes, such as a focus on appearance for girls and aggression for boys. Her findings also conclude that gender-neutral toys are more supportive of development in “physical, cognitive, academic, musical and artistic skills.”

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Gender-neutral toys, widely available in Hong Kong from stores such as Toys R Us, Wise Kids and Bumps to Babes, include musical instruments, puzzles, bicycles, building blocks and arts and craft activities. The recent loom bands craze has successfully bridged the gender gap, fostering creativity and fine motor skills among girls and boys alike. Another wonderful activity for all children is simply playing outdoors, whether at the park or the beach.

Having brothers and sisters can be an advantage, too, as the siblings are exposed to a wider range of play and experiences. Ellie, a mother of two, says that while her son loves cars, he also likes playing with his sister’s dolls. And her daughter has started liking the cars, too. Her experiences are echoed by mum Carole, who says her daughters and son enjoy sharing their toys, often playing dress-up or pretending to cook together.

But even if you don’t have kids of different genders at home, there are plenty of opportunities for offering them balanced playtime, whether at home or school. At Woodlands, to mix things up, teachers sometimes use a rota system to determine which child plays with which toy. And, Mr Orlando, a teacher at Little Dalton kindergarten, says teachers there often show children picture cards depicting empowering images that go against the gender stereotypes, like female firefighters or male teachers. During role-play, they also encourage children to take on different roles, such as girls playing the Big Bad Wolf or boys voicing Little Red Riding Hood.

As soon as children learn to communicate they become very good at expressing their wants, whether through vigorous finger pointing or vocal demands. Dr Amanda Oswalt Visher, director of child and family therapy at the Jadis Blurton Family Development Center, suggests that to help children explore their interests, parents should try to follow their child’s lead as far as possible. For example, try taking them to a different area in the toy store and letting them select what they want, instead of steering them to what you think they should be playing with or what they’ve chosen in the past.

Girls can be princesses and pirates. Boys can play with dinosaurs and dolls. While we often focus on the differences between girls and boys, children are individuals and can thrive with the freedom to discover their own interests, pink or blue.

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