Children’s Play Matters

My sons grew up in the days of feminist consciousness raising and Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be, You and Me” songs and stories. My consciousness was being raised about gender discrimination, and I rallied for the Equal Rights Amendment. The messages about gender roles my boys got from the culture were a little better than those messages boys and girls got when I was growing up about who we should be, what toys we should like, what we should wear, what school subjects we could do well in, what sports we could play or not play, even what musical instruments we should play or not play—all according to our gender.

Now as I shop for birthday and Christmas gifts for my grandsons, I’m dismayed to find that many toys are even more gender-stereotyped than when I shopped for my boys or even than when I was growing up. The aisles of the toy section at Target are not only marked girls and boys, but in case someone doesn’t read the signs, they are color-coded pink and blue. Even the Lego building sets, which used to be gender-neutral, are now pink and blue, with the pink being princess castles and domestic scenes and the blue being super heroes and warrior scenes. Toys R Us also labels “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” In the online store, at the top of the “girls’ toys” list are dolls, arts & crafts, bath, beauty & accessories, and pretend play. At the top of the “boys’ toys” list are action figures, video games, electronics, and building sets. People would be outraged if toys were created and marketed according to racial or ethnic stereotypes, and rightfully so. But gender-stereotyped toys are tolerated and even encouraged.

Why does all this matter? Play helps to form the way children see themselves, other people, and their world. Toys then are an important part of children’s educational and social development. Dr. Laura Nelson, a neuroscientist who led the campaign to change gender stereotyping of toys at Hamleys in London states: “Gender-specific color-coding influences the activities children choose, the skills they build, and ultimately the roles they take in society. Girls’ toys are often about beauty and the home, while toys for boys are mostly about being active, building things, and having adventures.”

 Gendered toys reinforce traditional male and female stereotypes. It’s easy to see the connection between girls playing with dolls and boys playing with action figures and the segregation of labor markets into “female” and “male” professions. Nurses, primary school teachers, and caregivers of all kinds are overwhelmingly female. Engineers, scientists, and mechanics tend to be male. In a New York Times article, Katrin Bennhold writes about the influence of gender-segregated toys: “This segregation matters: It helps explain a stubborn pay gap between men and women, as the caregiving professions generally pay less than technical jobs. Women earn on average 16 percent less than men in the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber, author of The Gendered Pulpit and featured in She Lives! Sophia Wisdom Works in the World, says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” I would add, “If you can’t play it, you can’t be it.” For the record, when I was growing up, I played being a minister, with the encouragement of my parents. I not only played with dolls, but also baptized all my dolls and even performed a wedding ceremony between my dog, Flossie, and our neighbor’s dog. Most of the time in our “pretend” church services my older sister, Anne, got to be the preacher while I played the piano, but I was still playing with a girl preacher!

As they play, boys also learn what they can and cannot be. Gender-stereotyped toys have a negative influence on boys as well as girls. If stores steer boys away from dolls and play houses, then boys don’t have as much opportunity as girls to develop domestic and nurturing skills. Our culture especially stigmatizes boys for crossing gender aisles in toy stores, reflecting an underlying misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. There is a fear that boys may become too “feminine.” So boys may have trouble engaging in creative play that has been traditionally labeled and demeaned as feminine.

The Good News

Playing with a full range of toys helps boys as well as girls to develop a variety of skills and to imagine themselves growing up to be whatever they desire according to their talents, not their gender. Boys playing with arts & crafts and dolls get messages that it’s fine for them to go into artistic and caregiving professions. Girls playing with electronics and building sets get messages that it’s fine for them to go into engineering and construction. Boys and girls playing with toys, reading books, and seeing movies with females and males of all races occupying an equal amount of space and engaged in equally adventurous activities are more likely to become adults who respect females and males of all races and see them as equals.

When I asked my son for gift suggestions for my four-year-old grandson, he replied, “anything with Dora the Explorer.” Dora the Explorer began more than 16 years ago as an educational animated TV series. In addition to this TV series, there is now a whole line of Dora toys, games, books, and videos. Dora, a young Latina girl, relishes adventures. On her quests she overcomes obstacles, meets challenges, solves puzzles, and emerges victorious. My grandson loves all things Dora.

The popularity of the Disney film Frozen also dispels the myth that girls will watch movies and read books that feature boys but that boys won’t watch movies and read books that feature girls. Boys and girls alike love Frozen, starring Elsa and Anna. The story ends not with the typical rescue of a woman by a man, but with Anna saving her sister, Elsa. Now there are Frozen toys, games, books, and even Halloween costumes. And the theme song of Frozen, “Let It Go,” has become a hit. My six-year-old and nine-year-old grandsons delight in Frozen, and they know all the words to “Let It Go,” which they sing to the top of their voices.

Good for Disney also for hosting Doc McStuffins, an animated TV series featuring an African American girl named Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, who wants to become a doctor like her mother. She pretends to be a doctor by curing toys, dolls, and stuffed animals. Girls and boys love Doc McStuffins toys, games, books, crafts, and videos; some are even listed under “boys’ toys” in the online Toys R Us store.

Lakeshore Learning Store, recommended by my daughter-in-law, also gives me hope that there are toys, books, games, and videos out there that give children messages of gender equality and respect for all people. When I went to the Dallas store, I found wonderful creative, educational toys, games, and books arranged according to age and grade level, not gender. The online store also uses this arrangement; there is no labeling and segregation of “girls’ toys” and “boys’ toys.”

Gender equality begins with children’s play. It’s encouraging to see Wisdom’s works of gender equality at Lakeshore Learning Store and in Frozen, Doc McStuffins, and Dora the Explorer.  Wisdom is alive and working in the world! She lives! Wisdom guides us to toys that give girls and boys messages of gender equality and respect for themselves and all people so that they can be free to be all they are created to be.…

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