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How important is gender in children's toys and play?
With some stores like Target moving toward a more gender-neutral model of marketing of gender-specific toys, the debate continues over whether gender-specific toys for kids further damaging stereotypes or play a central role in child development. - photo by Chandra Johnson
In 2010, when Maryland-based parenting blogger and consultant Maria Moser was on a quest for a toy baby stroller, she had one proviso in mind: It needed to not be pink. That proved to be a tall order, as Moser learned in the ensuing weeks searching for neutral-colored stroller. But it was a sticking point for Moser, since the stroller was for her young middle son rather than her daughter.

I feel I'm not raising little boys, I'm raising men. Men who will perhaps be someone's husband and father someday," Moser said. "Allowing them to play with babies is important.

As a mother of three children under 12, Moser has tried to impart a feeling of freedom and possibility into her kids that they, regardless of gender, can accomplish anything despite what traditional ideas of gender identity may dictate. To Moser, that lesson begins with the toys children play with, but its not a message she feels her children are likely to get from toys manufactured specifically toward one gender.

I knew that they'd have the rest of their lives to have gender stereotypes shoved down their throats, and I wanted them to have the safety of exploring whatever they wanted without ridicule, Moser said.

Moser isnt alone in her enthusiasm for gender neutrality in childrens marketing and toys. This summer, retail giant Target announced that amid customer outcry it would stop labeling toys for girls or boys and remove any colored paper from its toy shelving that referenced gender, such as pink or blue.

The idea behind gender neutrality in toys is that encouraging kids to play beyond the boundaries of traditional gender roles can help to iron out real-world gender inequalities in the future. In 2014, when Lego introduced its Research Institute play set that included a female chemist, astronomer and paleontologist figurines, liberal blog ThinkProgress argued that the toys very existence could combat current gender equality issues like gender disparities in science and technology jobs.

New Lego figures cant fix all of those problems, ThinkProgress reported. But they could get some girls hooked on science who might have otherwise thought they shouldnt be interested.

Gender neutrality in childrens toys and play may be a noble goal, but child-play researcher and psychologist Peter Gray says the focus on gender-neutral toys and play overlooks gender as a crucial aspect of both childrens play and their development.

Children come into the world designed to look around, see what it is that people of their gender do, and then they want to play at those skills to become good at them were biologically drawn to that, Gray said. From an evolutionary perspective, theres almost nothing more important than declaring yourself, so theres no confusion about what you offer within a given culture.

The power of choice

As Mosers kids have grown, theyve started choosing their own toys based on their own preferences that are more traditional her boys like toy cars and her daughter sometimes chooses pink Lego sets.

I'm just trying to strike a balance and let them find their own way, Moser said. But Im very quick to correct any thats for girls or boys talk.

But University of California Davis sociologist and toy researcher Elizabeth Sweet wonders how much choice children really have at a time when gender-specific toy marketing is at an all-time high.

The amount of gendered toys (that exist) today is unprecedented. Toys have never looked the way they do today, Sweet said. Some toys have always had some markings of gender, but it used to be done in overt ways. Now, entire aisles of toys are labeled for boys or girls.

Sweet has spent years studying American toy advertising from the turn of the 20th century through today, looking for what she calls gender cues that is, visual cues that tell a customer if the toy is for boys or girls. Sweet said cues have risen and fallen over the years in how much they target one gender or another. The cues can be overt such as a boy or girl shown playing with the toy on the package or implicit such as color.

Sweet says toys were least gendered in 1905, when they werent a high-demand consumer item, especially in an age when children were still used for labor. By 1925, Sweet said 51 percent of toys exhibited subtle gender cues, like coloring, while 49 percent had no gender coding.

Obvious gender coding in toys hit an all-time high in 1945, when 30 percent of toys were marketed by gender. Gender cues in toys were relaxed in the 1970s, Sweet said, with 32 percent of toys marketed to specific genders and just 31 percent offered subtle cues.

Compare that to what we see now, where outlets like the Disney online store is 100 percent gender-coded, thats a huge change, Sweet said. Certainly young kids respond to gender stereotypes and thats why marketers use them. But its not necessarily good for children.

But Jim Silver, CEO of the toy review firm TTPM, says toy companies are simply conducting good business practices by designing their products based on their intended demographic. Silver said that gender-specific toys in no way restrict children's play and pointed to Hasbro's introduction of a neutral-colored EasyBake Oven as a sign that toy makers are open to change.

"Manufacturers and retailers are looking at (gender) labeling less they're listening to consumers," Silver said. "But what do you do about something like Barbie dolls where boys just have less interest? You can't expect Mattel to market to boys."

Sweet says the problem isnt that children are drawn to certain toys because theyre made for girls or boys; its the lack of variety in toys thats worrisome. Sweet says when toy makers focus exclusively on gender, they risk defining childrens play for them which can actually inhibit the benefits of play.

When the system is set up as it is into two rigid, narrow boxes, there arent a lot of things that reinforce individual behavior and so much of play is about the child making their own decisions and taking control, Sweet said. If those boxes werent here, children could play in a way that wasnt set for them.

Toys and culture

Sweet says gender cues in toys have ebbed and flowed because adults think girls and boys play differently.

In the past, that was paired with the idea that girls were inferior the new version is that theyre separate but equal, so you get things like pink vs. regular Legos, Sweet said. Whether or not we tell girls and boys that they can be equal, theres this idea (within toys) that an entire persons capacity is defined by their gender.

While Gray says gender does have a significant role in how children play, it's more important that children not be forced to play in any certain way. Boxing kids in according to norms dictated by toy companies such as, cars and action figures are for boys, dolls and tea sets are for girls can actually inhibit the benefits kids get from play on their own terms.

Children really know themselves better than we know whats important for them to do, Gray said. When we try to direct their play by saying something like, You cant play with guns, or whatever, then the child isnt going into it with same enthusiasm and theyre not learning to take control of their own lives.

Gray says its also unlikely toys can change the state of gender equality. Rather than trying to change culture through childrens toys, he says, childrens toys are a reflection of the culture children are born into.

Theres always this trend to think we can shape the future or our children through what we give them to play with, but its the other way around, Gray said. As the culture changes, childrens interests also change to reflect that. So far, our culture hasnt changed in regard to (gender neutrality).

While Moser isnt expecting to change the world overnight with her kids toys, she does plan to keep thinking of her children as individuals rather than simply as one gender or the other whatever colors their future toys are.

My kids are who they are and like what they like because they're individuals, not because they are boys or girls, Moser said. At the same time, I don't claim that gender doesn't play a role in that.
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