In November 2016, a discussion on the Mumsnet parenting website about the prominence of pink and blue in the toy aisles galvanized a group of parents into action. Out of that heated discussion, the Let Toys Be Toys campaign started, with the aim of challenging gender stereotypes in childhood. We began by asking retailers to take down the gendered signs in the toy aisles and since then 14 retailers have now pledged to remove all gendered signs. Only a fifth of online stores now use gender as a way to filter when buying toys.
As early years practitioners know, play matters: children need a wide range of activities to develop different skills. Toy signs and the stereotypes they communicate limit children’s choices, affecting their self-image and self-esteem, and limiting their expectations.
From our extensive discussions with early childhood experts, we have established that neuroscientists, psychologists and educationalists all agree that boys and girls are much more alike than different.
Marketing and signage that is heavily gendered tells children that they don’t have a choice and have to follow the rules. Children do like to follow rules, especially in the early years. They can sometimes feel like they are committing a social transgression if they make a choice which is different from what the signs are telling them. We also find that they may encounter ‘gender policing’ from other children (‘that’s for boys / girls!’). They also absorb messages from media and society as to what is the ‘right’ way to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, or what occupations and activities might be suitable for them.
We have found that toys and books marketed to girls are more focused on themes of beauty, imagination, caring, cooking and cleaning, and feature more passive play and stories about princesses or romance. We find that toys and books marketed to boys mainly have themes of action, adventure, science, space and transport, and are missing themes around caring. What is this telling children?
Boys are being directed to play that is active, spatial, investigative, and uses gross motor skills. Girls’ play is supposed to be passive, relational, domestic and about appearance.
The impact on children’s development is far-reaching. As Aly Murray, the manager of a large day nursery in the south of England, explains: “Every child needs to learn to count, read and write and these skills have their formative beginnings in play during the early years. It can also confuse the child from an early age making them wonder why they cannot play with certain things but others can, not helping with skills like turn-taking and sharing.”
Practitioners need to ensure that all children get the opportunity to experience different types of toys to allow them to develop a range of skills for the future. Stereotyped ideas about what’s suitable for boys or girls can limit children’s opportunities to learn and develop. Here are some ideas to encourage children to think of themselves as individuals, rather than editing their choices through a gender filter:
Create a safe space
You can help children by affirming unconventional choices, reassuring them that it’s OK to be different and encouraging a culture of acceptance. For example, a parent may question boys dressing up as princesses – your role is to support the children in their choices.
Challenge stereotypes when you hear them
“Why can’t a boy wear pink? My dad does.”
“Why can’t girls like football? My wife plays for our local women’s team.” Children are often very keen to police one another and make sure their peers follow the gender rules they’ve learned. You can set the example by questioning them, and offering counterexamples from your own experience.
Provide a range of role models
Similarly, give children real-life examples that counter stereotypes, both in your own activities and with external visitors. Ask for female fire fighters, male nurses or female police officers when there’s an outside visit. Join in with football if you’re a woman, do a bit of knitting as a man.
Make the most of books
Take a look at the stories and factual books in your classroom. Are there examples of working women, caring fathers, active girls and creative boys? Labelling a bookshelf ‘Boys’ books’ might seem like a good way to encourage reluctant boy readers, but this can be counterproductive. It reminds boys of the stereotype that they are supposedly less interested in reading and encourages the idea that only certain interests are allowed.
Look at who uses which spaces and equipment
Do certain areas get dominated by particular groups, or by one gender? Are there changes or movements you could make to encourage children to feel equally free to use the home corner, the reading corner, the bikes, the Lego, outdoor space… Is it about colour coding and signage? Perhaps remove all the pink and blue!
Choose other ways to organise children
Using gender to divide the children up can be quick and convenient, but it gives them the constant message that being a boy or a girl is the most important thing about them. Thinking of other ways to group children – perhaps by age, birthday, alphabetically – can be a subtle but effective way of encouraging them to think about their identity in different ways.
Use inclusive language
Small changes, like saying ‘children’ instead of ‘girls and boys’ or ‘families’ rather than ‘Mums and Dads’ can help to affirm the things we have in common rather than our differences.
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