Sofia Tafich | Assistant Editor of Social Sciences
For children, playing is so much more than just a way to pass the time–it is vital to their social, intellectual, and emotional development. Especially from the ages three to five, children are very curious. They are exploring, observing and wanting to learn about everything they encounter. The toys they play with greatly aid in this early development, but they can also implement gender stereotypes and negatively affect brain development.
A study published in Psychological Science found that boys are much more likely than girls to play with board games, puzzles and blocks, which are considered more masculine toys. According to this same study, playing with these toys helps children develop a “better spatial reasoning ability.” The skills acquired from this type of play, such as the ability to reason about space and the manipulation of objects, are necessary for everyday life and are particularly prevalent in fields involving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). More feminine toys, such as dolls and kitchen sets, aid language development and the acquisition of social skills. Christia Spears Brown, associate professor at the University of Kentucky, says that acting like mothers and taking care of baby dolls teaches children empathy and how to take care of others.
Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, conducted research focused on gender and children’s toys, which concluded that gendered toys shape children’s play preferences and styles because they “limit the range of skills and attributes that both boys and girls can explore through play,” stating that they may “prevent children from developing their full range of interests, preferences, and talents.”
Beauty and makeup sets, kitchen sets, and baby dolls: the girls’ toy section can teach girls that these should be the things they worry about, the people they strive to be. These playsets all give girls the impression that they need to wear makeup and look good, be in the kitchen, and be able to take care of babies. On the other hand, cars, firefighter trucks, bikes, and building blocks encourage boys to be more rough and action-oriented.
Besides toy type, color also negatively impacts little boys and girls in the early stages of development because of its implications on gender. The simplest way to illustrate this is how little boys are bullied and shamed by other boys and girls when they play with, or wear clothes that are pink–a color associated with girls. Boys are not born with an aversion to pink, and girls aren’t born with a preference for pink – this is all learned behavior. Associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, Vanessa LoBue, and Judy DeLoache from the University of Virginia conducted a study with a group of children aged seven months to five years and found that the preference of pink for girls and the avoidance of pink for boys starts at the age of two, becoming more pronounced by the time they are two and a half.
This ties to the power of marketing. Toy cars and puzzles that are labeled by gender and the way stores segregate toys by the colors blue and pink reinforce gender division at an early age. Girls and boys know where to go for their toys at the store and know which aisles to avoid, and this prevents children from having the opportunity to explore the wide range of toys available, preventing children from developing different skill sets. Gender-specific toys constrain children to the toys offered uniquely for their gender. Especially between the ages of three and five, gender is important to children. They seek to understand its role and start establishing a gender identity. An example of this occurred in one of Brown’s experiments that proved a girl will be more likely to play with a truck and see it as a girl toy if she sees a group of other girls playing with a truck.
With the emergence of these studies and pushback from parents, there are major toy retailers such as Target that have actually started to make an effort of reducing the gender-labeling of toys. Target received a lot of backlash for their decision, even though there were psychologists and many others who did approve of their move. Lisa Dinella, associate professor at Monmouth University and Principal Investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory, says researchers worry about the negative impact of heavily segregated toys. Sweet’s studies also show that toys are more segregated and divided by gender than ever before. Realistically, achieving the complete de-gendering of toys is impossible. But there can definitely be a middle ground. This is what companies such as Target and WalMart and campaigns such as the nonprofit Let Toys Be Toys, which seeks to get retailers to stop categorizing toys for one gender only, are trying to do.
According to Sweet, toy choices should be based on kids’ personal interests, and not on their gender. Imagine all the potential and complete range of skills children could develop when playing with toys if they weren’t constrained to certain kinds of toys by gender-specific marketing!
Featured photo from Shutterstock.