For better or worse, products and the designed world are used as tools for self-determination. In childhood, toys become part of a playful process of becoming ones’ self. Child psychologists have known for decades that through play, children learn empathy, "try on" identities, and experiment with their place in the world. Essentially, in childhood we play our way through discovering who we are. Unfortunately for kids today, the designed world doesn’t leave much room for them to explore. Most toys come with pre-defined identities and stories, which rob children of the joy of imagining these things. There is also a dearth of open-ended toys, or toys without instructions and right and wrong answers. This leaves few opportunities to figure out how to use a toy, experiment, fail, and invent the story of where it came from, and why it does what it does.
Imagining, understanding, and becoming who we are is a process informed by play, and both toy companies and designers are taking all the exploration out of it.
Let kids imagine the story and design their own play.
The ideal toy for a child is not a toy at all but something that they’ve appropriated for play. Enter: sticks and rocks! Imagination transforms a stick into a magic wand, a sword, or a tool to poke a dead thing. A rock becomes a car or a whale. Because these found objects have no assigned story (they are "un-designed"), they shift identities as needed.
Later, the rock that was once a car becomes a tool to smash leaves when the play changes. This isn’t likely to happen with a toy car that has four wheels and a plastic body. That car can only be a car. The stick that was previously imagined to be a sword and helped slay a dragon (a tree) will shift to become a superhero flying through the air with jet-shoes. This can’t happen with a pre-defined action figure. Superheroes have specific physical characteristics which, along with the movie, comic book or TV show plot, provides the story of how that toy will behave. In play these are the equivalent of instructions, limiting the potential for the child to invent the narrative.
I’ve spent time with Penny Wilson, an influential playworker in adventure playgrounds in the U.K., observing children playing. She taught me the important difference between asking kids "What are you building?" and saying to them, "Tell me about what you’re doing." When we ask, 'What are you building?' it implies that: a) You should have a goal and be working toward a finished thing, i.e., play is linear; b) you are supposed to be building something (children's understanding of the built world is often limited to houses, so they are confronted with either having done it wrong, or they change their vision to fit their perception of your expectation); c) you should be doing something that you can explain to me.
We want to avoid all of these rules. So by saying "tell me about this" we leave the door open to stories about what children are imagining, and they can share challenges, discoveries about putting things together, or any number of things about their experience with their peers and school.
This simple semantic shift has influenced how I design for play. Giving children less leaves room for them to contribute more. By allowing them to direct their own play they develop habits of agency, independence, and self-determination. Armed with these skills, they jump in to figure out who they are and will be in the world, rather than waiting for someone to hand them a model to follow. And in today’s toy market, the models are driven by gender..
Be aware that gender is socialized and reinforced by toys.
Do we really need to have a pink version and a blue version of the same toy? In most cases, the non-pink toy is the original version, and the pink is the "girl" version. Calling something a girl toy implies the rest are for boys. In the meantime, there are gross assumptions being made and socialized norms being formed about what girls and boys want to play with. When we tell children which toys they should like, we are telling them who they should be. Some girls like climbing trees and building. Some boys like princesses. They need to play those roles without feeling like they are doing something wrong.
Parents tell me "but my girl likes pink princesses." Maybe she intrinsically does. And maybe she was born into a pink blanket and spent her baby years surrounded by pink things and at every turn she’s shown princesses as the ideal girl. Maybe she doesn’t know that she has other options.
This isn’t an argument against pink toys. On the contrary, I believe they resonate with some girls—AND some boys. Just as hammers should be given to girls, princesses should be offered to boys. The problem is the assumption that there needs to be a "girl version" of a toy in order to draw her in.
In the same way that some girls like to build things, climb trees, and poke dead things, some boys want to play house, wear pink, and avoid mud. Boys should be encouraged to wear pink tutus. Girls should be encouraged to use hammers. Performing gender, class, race, and careers is the beginning of learning empathy. More specifically, through open-ended play they have the agency to understand their identity as their own to invent and define.
When children have agency in their play, they learn to have agency in their lives. The instructions we should give to children? Don’t wait for someone to tell you who and what to be—jump in and figure it out.