A strange thing has happened. As the world has embraced voting rights for women, dads who change diapers, and girls who kick butt on the soccer field and classrooms, the toy industry has taken an opposite road.
Today, the toy aisle is the physical manifestation of all of the extreme and narrow gender stereotypes from a bygone era. Pepto pink dolls, tea sets, and miniature vacuums face off against navy blue soldiers, tanks, and robots. Looking at the evenly split rows of extremely feminine and masculine toys, you would never guess that modern men take paternity leave and change diapers while women serve in the army and lead corporations.
Surprisingly, this is a recent development. In Sears catalogs from 1975, less than 2% of toys were explicitly marketed to boys or girls. In the 1970s, nearly 70% of toys had no gender labels at all and advertisements showed both girls and boys playing with a variety of toys in bright happy colors. Many ads showed girls driving cars and using tools and boys playing with kitchens and dolls.
Then toy marketers learned that could sell more toys by preventing hand-me-downs and declaring that they were for only girls or only boys. Toy design and marketing began to rigidly adhere to the tropes of gender stereotypes, affecting toys and play for the next 40 years.
While there are very real neurological and biological differences between girls and boys, there is also “plasticity” in kids’ brain that allows them to grow and become flexible. When children exercise a wide range of skills, it expands this flexibility, but limiting these skills causes their brains to become narrow and fixed.
The problem is that the “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” have come to represent a narrow range of skills. A study conducted by Judith Elaine Blakemore, a professor at Indiana University, showed that the most strongly female-gendered toys focus on attractiveness and appearance and the most strongly male-gendered toys focus on violence and battle.
In contrast, gender-inclusive toys tend to encourage a diversity of skills, like creativity, building, nurturing, music, art, and science. Gender-inclusive toys, like blocks and Playdoh, also tend to be more open-ended. This means that kids can make a skyscraper or a velociraptor. Open-ended toys are fun for kids for a much longer time period. Sadly, in the past 45 years, gender-inclusive toys have gone from being the majority to the minority. Kids lose out because of gendered toys. We need to change that.
Gender labels have an impact on kids’ choices. It’s been shown that girls don’t want to touch a toy if it’s labeled a “boy’s toy”. However when the exact same toy, even a monster truck, is labeled as a girl’s toy, the girls are interested. The same holds true for boys.
Typically toys that encourage spatial skills, science, and building are labeled “boys’ toys.” And toys that encourage creativity, art, and nurturing are labeled “girls’ toys.” The reality is that spatial skills, science, building, creativity, art, and nurturing appeal to and are necessary for both girls and boys.
If we tell a girl she can’t play with engineering toys, how can we expect her to code? And, if we tell a boy he can’t nurture, how can he aspire to be a good father?
As designers and parents, we’ve spent hundreds of hours watching kids play and playing close attention to what makes their eyes light up, what keeps their attention, and what makes them feel proud of themselves. We’ve designed toys with Hasbro, Lego, and MIT Media Lab and one of us (the author of this article) is currently founding a toy startup. We’ve learned both girls and boys love toys that expand imagination, have appealing colors, and inspire pride in creation.
The overwhelming majority of STEM toys stick to assembling robots and cars, while arts and crafts toys concentrate on making bracelets and purses. Most kids actually like a variety of things and narrowly defined toys discourage and limit them.
We saw this in action on a design project with MIT Media Lab and Lego. Lego knew that their Mindstorms line appealed to a narrow set of heavily engineering-oriented kids who loved robots and cars. We were asked to design a STEM toy that integrated Lego components and appealed to a larger group of girls and boys. We quickly learned that imagination was the key missing component. As soon as we designed parts that allowed kids to easily make a talking dinosaur, light-up biking gloves, or anything else that they could think of, the race to make for everyone was on.
Go beyond color stereotypes.
Color in toy design can be used to both limit and expand the appeal. By the age of three, most kids have been exposed to enough messaging to think that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. By predominantly using pink or blue, toy designers are actively telling one gender that this toy is not for them.
Unfortunately, toys that encourage spatial skills, science, and building are often blue. And toys that encourage creativity, art, and nurturing are often pink.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. The human eye can see over 7 million colors. This means that there are at least 6,999,998 colors that are being underused. Both boys and girls like excitement and abundance of color. Color in toy design can be used to actively expand toys to appeal to both girls and boys. Almost any toy can be designed in a mix of colors that says “I’m for you.”
Inspire pride in creation.
Kids want to make awesome things that look good and work well.
However, girls’ craft toys typically focus on aesthetics. With most craft toys, girls can make a bracelet, magnet, or picture frame that looks high quality and can be used in real life. But, the technology that’s used in these toys is almost always at least 200 years old, like weaving, beading, or paper curling.
Boys’ STEM toys tend to ignore aesthetics and everyday functionality. Typically they focus on modern technology. With these toys, boys may learn how to build a circuit or make a gear train, but the end product is often messy-looking and can’t be used in real life.
The reality is that looking good and working well are not mutually exclusive, and toy designers should prioritize both. These toys will inspire pride in creation and make kids excited to learn and try out new things.
These are some toys that we think cross the pink and blue divide. They expand imagination, go beyond color stereotypes, and inspire pride in creation.
From parking garages to barns to fairy houses, kids love building with these.
Technology Will Save Us DIY Electro Dough Kit
Think Playdoh meets mad scientist. Kids bring to life their dough creations with lights and sounds while learning about circuits.
Shrinky Dink Sheets
Anything a child can draw can now be turned into a charm, a mobile, a keychain, a zipper pull, or a you-name-it. Make sure to use the oven light to watch the magic in real time.
There is something meditative and magical about Spirograph.
Turn bananas, houseplants, or your grandma into a keyboard. Really.
Hape Wooden Marble Run
Encourage spatial and reasoning abilities in the most rollercoaster-y way.
Capes, forts, hand puppets, and wings: These versatile toys inspire all kinds of play.
Sponge Animal Capsules
Totally awesome bath-time magic.
Ikea Play Kitchen
Gives mini master chefs a special space to prep, simmer, and bake.
Playdoh and Stop Motion Studio App
Take your Playdoh up an adorable and animated notch.
NovaNatural Tool Box
These tools are very real and quite functional. And, sized for little hands.