Education
What Is a “Girl Toy”?

Anne-Mayoral-Girls-Toy-braverman

This article first appeared in Make: Volume 41.
This article first appeared in Make: Volume 41.

Take a 15-minute trip to a big-box store and you’ll see the girls’ aisle dominated by pink toys — dolls, play sets, games, and dress-up clothing, all in various shades of pink. Aside from the color, the toys share another similarity: They all encourage specific patterns of play that focus on role-play, nurturing, and domestic crafting. Conversely, the boys’ aisle is full of action figures, erector sets, blasters, and cars — toys that highlight action, building, and violence.

Gender-based toy marketing is nothing new, but the impact on our children shapes their futures. According to the National Institute for Play, “play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions.” If we limit the play patterns for girls through the use of segregated toys, they will experience only a narrow view of the world, suggesting each gender can excel only in certain areas.

For girls, the message is: I cannot be good in math and science. In a culture charged with strong gender expectations and social pressures, young girls develop a distorted idea of their expected role in life and strive to live up to skewed ideals that fall short of their potential. The message has been so pervasive that today, women are heavily under-represented among working engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.

There are a few new engineering toys specifically designed for girls that are aimed at combatting this effect. GoldieBlox and Roominate strive to capture girls’ imagination before they lose interest in science and math. Created by female engineers, these toys focus on building, designing, and innovating, play patterns usually offered only to boys. However, they also incorporate elements of traditional girl toys, like dollhouses, parades, and tree houses. Some critics worry that the pastel colors and overall premise — girls can only tackle girly problems — further highlights the gender messaging that plagues the rest of the toy aisle. Still, parents often see these toys as a refreshing gateway to more advanced interests, teaching skills and concepts that might lead to STEAM fields.

In addition to engineering toys targeted at girls, some toymakers are creating gender-neutral toys. If we want to transform the toy market, we need to break the rules and work to eliminate gender-typed toys, and support toymakers who do the same.

Still, gender-specific toys are pervasive, and it is difficult to find mainstream toys that are designed for both sexes and endorsed by both parent and child. As we design, make, and buy STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) toys, we should think about the message they send to children.
Toys and activities that support types of play that defy gender stereotypes will teach the skills, experiences, and intuition that foster an aptitude for STEAM fields. When faced with challenges in math and science, girls will receive a message of competence and confidence.

There’s no easy solution; it’ll take time, and change will have to come one girl at a time. We can make a more immediate and significant impact with our girls by encouraging them to play with whatever toys interest them, despite their color.

The key for parents is not to push their daughters one way or the other — not every girl should be, or will want to be, an engineer. Instead, the goal is to offer a variety of toys and a chance for hands-on discovery and making, either at home or in a local makerspace, and then let them choose for themselves. If we foster these skills, it will give them the chance to explore their own interests, not limited to the opportunities defined by their gender.

0 thoughts on “What Is a “Girl Toy”?

  1. I will grant you that my experience in (big box-R us) is slightly stale at this point, but from your article, not much has changed. The boy’s toy section is still filled with violence: Weapons that are violent, action figures that are violent, hideous monster-people that are violent. Sure, there’s some cars, and yes, there’s a small section of construction toys. If “play shapes our brains”, then we ought to be at least as worried about the violence aimed at our sons…

    But as this is an article about play and STEAM and how the status quo benefits boys, can you explain how all this violence promotes STEAM? I hated shopping for my son. There was nothing to stimulate his intellect, nothing to pique his curiosity, nothing that said math or science. I looked. Maybe your toy stores are different, but I’m having a hard time seeing where my toy store prepared my son to be a maker, or promoted STEAM.

    1. In our area, the Mastermind stores are a greater magnet to my boys than the BoxRUs varieties. But if you want really interesting creative pursuits, the net can offer more. MakeDo is a particular favourite.

    2. Violence? Really? I take issue with this discription. I played with these toys and I am not a violent person, in fact a passive war resister during Viet Nam.They are not violent toys, but rather aggressive. What most parents don’t realize is that agression in boys and passiveness in girls, to a certain extent, is hardwired in us. Not completely, some is societally based, but there clearly is a evolutionary element at work that is ingrained in all humans. For thousands of years, men were the hunters and women were the gatherers based on fundemental body types, for good reason. To propogate the species. That is not going to change anytime soon. What we really need to be looking at is our learning institutions and how they a promoting gender inequality within our educational systems and curriculim at a pretty early age.

  2. I am a father. I want my son to be equally adept in the kitchen and at a sewing machine as he is in the traditional STEAM areas. It’s as concerning to me as the gender based difficulties outlined for daughters (which I also have).

  3. I’m sorry (and I know I will get heat for this) but what is wrong with wanting boys to be boy and girls to be girls? As a guy, I actually sew better than my girlfriend, but when I was growing up in the late 70’s, boys played with trucks and toy guns and erector sets while girls played with dolls and kitchen sets and craft kits. Now, that isn’t to say that a girl can’t show interest in a chemistry set or that a boy can’t show interest in cross-stitching, and if they do then encourage that, but humans were created (or popped into existence – whichever you choose) as male and female for a reason. Men have always held the dominate role with hunting and gathering and creating as their base instincts. Women have always had nurturing and cooking and taking care of the family as their base instincts. Whether by design or evolution, this is for a reason. A society with no defined gender roles, no given order, cannot last indefinitely. Yeah, I know.. this isn’t politically correct, so… let the flaming and condemnation began.

    1. This is false on so many levels.
      “Evolution” does not dictate that girls are interested only, or even mainly, in cooking and nurturing. If so, why do more equal countries (e.g. Scandinavia) have much higher ratio of female engineers etc than the US? Surely women there would follow their base instincts and flock to their “natural habitat” in the kitchen..?

      Girls shy away from STEM because they are conditioned to from before they can even talk. In part by toys as pointed out here.

    2. The thing is, it’s not just women missing out. Men have to work really hard at being good fathers because they have to learn everything the second they have a child. The reality is that every child should be given both robotic toys and legos as well as dolls and kitchen toys, and if there are still anything like home ec and shop classes, everyone should be getting both of those as well. And violent toys just shouldn’t exist, unless it’s a lead in to talk about war and atrocities that happen in our world. We treat this situation like it’s just the women being treated poorly, which is to ignore how little we help boys learn to deal with emotions and relationships. It’s often just not something that’s acceptable for guys to talk about because of the way they’ve been brought up. That’s not good for anyone. I’ll go so far as to say that there is no such thing as a gender role other than physically having the baby.

  4. This article is utterly asinine. My daughters gravitate toward the pink on their own. And we also play legos. And my older daughter can solder a joint better than I can. When did Make stop being about making and start becoming pointless navel-gazing? Crimeny.

  5. The REAL world does not work like this. Kids are drawn to what interests them and the Market replies, not the other way around. You can not make kids do what they do not want to do. I tried the inverse with my daughter and it did not work. Sure we fished, played football, hot-wheels and GI Joe but that was something she only did with me. It was not who she was. Show them the store and let them pick what they like, it is their choice. Nothing they choose is wrong and forcing one way or the other is not healthy. There is nature and nurture, but you can not make lemonade from apples.

  6. These things are only for rich kids… poor kids play overwhelmingly with gender stereotype irrelevant toys. Bikes, swingsets, balls, sticks, hammers, nails, whatever you find around or outside the house.

    Its only around Christmas in big box stores or under Christmas trees you see the other plastic crap. The solution is to get rid of Christmas. Put your money into their birthday and make it sensible things they can use when they grow up into their teens and leave the nest broke as a motherfucker. By that time you won’t be on speaking terms with them and wont be ready or able to help them homestead all at once… and all they are going to have is a boom box and the clothes on their backs and a bunch of plactic toys you gave them when they were 7 that they’d rather throw away. Maybe you should of bought them other more practical things all those years, you think?

    I’m of the opinion that too many plastic crap toys and video games distort kids and do them a disservice… and distract them away from being in the real world. Worse, these overpriced toy store worthless plastic toys warp any sense of figuring out the inherent value of things, and they end up developing no financial commonsense whatsoever. Later on in life they will buy overpriced inferior crap because its pretty or how it looks or makes them feel. Stupidity grounded in superficialness… you see it rampant in people today that grew up on that crap.

  7. This article seems to miss the chicken or the egg point.

    The toys exist and marketers market them in that way because they sell. They sell because the girls want them.

    I’m in the process of watching my little girl toddler discover the world, and do you know what she looks for without any form of prompting? Pink things. Mommy things. She picked up a doll she found at the store and put it in a stroller on her own and started pushing it around. I didn’t tell her that what she was doing was reinforcing gender stereotypes, I just let her do what she wanted because she wanted to do it.

    I would love nothing more than to have her grow up to be a hacker/programmer/maker/geek like her pop, but that’s not my call. Of course she’s going to experience these things and decide if they interest her, and whether or not to pursue them, but that’s simply experiencing life.

    Arguing that these young minds are being molded to fit a standard by slick marketing schemes flies in the face of anything a toddler has every said or done. They want it their way or the highway. If the girl wants to play with barbies, she’ll let you know. If the boy wants to play with barbies, he’s going to let you know. If the girl wants barbie’s particle accelerator to be blue instead of pink, she’ll let you know.

    Give kids and their parents a little more credit. Just because the world isn’t as you wish it to be doesn’t mean there is some kabal in a star chamber deciding what genders do what. There was a time before toy stores existed, and things were quite similar.

  8. Stick with making. Entire studies and even a lawsuit was done on the whole boy girl aisle issue and the retailers even placated the whiners. They mixed things for a while and guess what they got – complaints. The aisles aren’t separated by gender labels but by subject matter. Nothing is stopping a girl from playing with Nerf guns or a boy with Monster High dolls other than whoever is doing the purchasing. If you see gender roles and sexism in the store there are only 2 reasons – either you brought it with you or it sells ( meaning the consumer on the aggregate wants it). Can we please drop this ridiculous gender-baiting and build stuff?

  9. Unfortunately kids are not in charge of the spending on toys so I think an article like is great for adults as it helps them put a bit more thought into what they buy. My 5 year old lego fanatic really wanted Lord of the Rings lego or maybe even the Polar base and asked her grandparent for it. Her grandparent instead gave her easy ‘girl’ lego. (why?) She did her own hacking and uses the girl lego hair on other lego people to make orcs she coloured in with a texta.

  10. I wanted to like this article then the author had to go and screw it up by causually adding Art to STEM.
    If we played “one of these things is NOT like the other…” Art would be removed from the list.

    The term is STEM not STEAM and if you are going to use jargon you better use the right jargon. Also you should not have waited till the end of the price to clarify YOU added art to a known and accepted acronym. That’s just poor writing/editing.

    Additionally, the author never once mentions issues with women becoming artists, florists, designers, etc. Yet they casually lump Art with Math and Science as if they belong to the same group. So why the pointless and unsupported (by the lack of authors own statements) addition of art?

    Art is too pervasive to assign to one category alone (try to devide arts from crafts just for fun) yet is clearly distinct from mathes and sciences where opinions should be undervalued compared to facts.

    Hopefully the author cleans up this mistake so as to present themself as an authority on the subject rather than undermine their own position with sloppy writing.

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