By Angela Pirisi
Even in 2008, if you look at what some major toy manufacturers are producing, gender stereotypes are in full force, observes Dr. Daniela O’Neill, a professor of developmental psychology at Ontario’s University of Waterloo and director of the University of Waterloo Centre for Child Studies. “It’s just so pervasive in the marketing, and kids are very perceptive, so they pick up on the cues being constantly fed to them from the outside,” she says. Even if parents try not to dictate gender-specific toy choices, kids see toy packaging and ads that depict boys racing cars and girls grooming dolls, and gravitate towards those gender-specific choices, explains Dr. O’Neill, who is also an early language and cognitive development expert.
By school age, it’s pretty common for kids to migrate towards more gender-specific choices. “In school, kids are usually socialized by their peers pretty quickly, as segregation of the sexes typically happens,” says Dr. Warren Eaton, a developmental psychologist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “Kids four-plus choose toys more according to gender than according to whether the toy is good for active versus quiet play.” In fact, 78 percent of children participating in a study led by Dr. Eaton chose toys according to their gender.
“We’ve always purposely gone out of our way to choose gender-neutral toys, such as building blocks, tactile touch toys, nothing pink or blue,” says Hamilton, Ont., dad Don Mallory, of his 20-month-old son, Rhys, and five-year-old daughter, Bronwyn. “We also choose toys that they don’t typically play with, just to give them a different experience.” Those are good moves, says Dr. O’Neill. “The hallmark of a good toy is one that offers limitless possibilities for play and that can be used in different ways. So choose toys that aren’t too highly structured.”
If you want to choose toys that kids will love and learn with that have little to do with gender, there are a few things you can keep in mind, suggests Dr. O’Neill:
Writer Angela Pirisi’s four-year-old daughter is pretty gender-neutral about her toy choices, but still loves to wear pink.
Check out our toy guide for our top toy picks.