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Gendering Toys – Not Anymore

Don’t try to influence children’s natural interests – it limits their imagination and inhibits their growth

The best way to make learning effective is to make it fun, and what’s more fun to toddlers than play? This is why playtime is a very important part of the preschool routine, as various toys can be used to teach children about different birds, animals, colours, shapes, movements, and other aspects of daily life. However, over time, it has become an accepted practice for certain kinds of toys to be considered ‘appropriate’ for girls and certain kinds for boys. Adults tend to have the fear that playing with toys ‘meant’ for the opposite sex could skew the accepted notions of masculinity and feminity, and predispose them to develop homosexual behaviour later in their lives.

However, paediatrician Dr Alan Greene has observed that almost all healthy toddlers copy the behaviour of the opposite gender. In fact, a study conducted by the Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics found that 22.8% of boys and 38.6% of girls exhibited 10 or more gender-atypical behaviours.

Blue for boys, pink for girls

Toy stores and even sweets like Kinder Joy are segregated on the basis of gender. ‘Blue for boys’ and ‘pink for girls’ serves as the general colour scheme for different kinds of toys for different genders. Dolls, miniature cookware sets, tiny mirrors, combs, fake make-up, beads, stickers of ‘feminine’ things like flowers and butterflies are usually given to girls, whereas boys get ‘tougher’ toys like train sets, action figures, building blocks, etc. 

It is rare to see girls being encouraged to play with ‘masculine’ toys, and it is equally sad to see boys being openly taunted and scolded for showing interest in dolls, cooking sets, and other such ‘feminine’ toys.

Girls’ place not just at home

Children have impressionable minds, and they are at an age where they can form notions that may stay with them for life. For this reason, it is important to raise them as broad-minded individuals and do away with gender binaries that have the potential to enforce stereotypes or any sort of discrimination whatsoever.

Giving girls only make-up kits, cookware sets, etc. builds the notion in both girls and boys that it is their role to do domestic chores, be submissive, and give more attention to their looks than boys. In the quest to gender toys, certain toys like Barbie dolls are given exaggeratedly feminine traits.

Being ‘man’ enough as a toddler?

At the other end of the spectrum, boys are given hypermasculine toys, having bulging muscles and displaying fierce expressions, as seen in GI Joe action figures. This can set the precedent for distorted notions like ‘boys must be strong,’ and ‘men must be muscular.’ It is also shocking to see how casually boys are given toy guns to play with, as if to encourage them to take an interest in violence.

The solution

Here are some points for preschools to follow during playtime, which may even out the playing field (literally) and help children play according to their natural interests, instead of being bound by gender stereotypes:

  • Mix ‘girls’ toys, like cookware sets and dolls,  with those of ‘boys’, like train sets, building blocks, etc. together in a common play area, and let the children choose for themselves. If a boy picks up a girls’ toy or vice versa, let them play with it. Don’t take it away or redirect them to a more ‘appropriate’ one. Otherwise, this will inculcate homophobic and sexist tendencies from a young age.
  • Provide gender-neutral toys, like board games, doctor kits, stuffed animals, Play-Doh, etc. that do not enforce any gender roles.
  • Encourage girls to play with profession-oriented toys, such as doctor kits, and games like student-teacher imitation, etc. This will instil a sense of ambition in them from a young age, and normalise the need to pursue a career rather than just remain in the domestic space.
  • Similarly, encourage boys to play with more domestic toys, like cookware sets, so that they understand from a young age that there is no shame in being a male who can cook. In fact, it is rather important for them to learn this important skill and not think of it as a girl thing. When they are taught such values from an early age, they will grow up to be open-minded, independent individuals who are not solely dependent on women for food and other domestic chores. 

It is important for teachers to keep an open mind and understand that their objective is to teach children to be good people rather than ‘good girls’ or ‘good boys’. It is advisable to conduct gender sensitisation workshops for teachers and help them move beyond gender binaries in the school setting.

Samyuktha Nair

Sub-editor, The Next World Samyuktha has completed her masters in English literature and is a published author. She is passionate about writing and aims to pursue her PhD in literature too. Gender studies and new languages are some of her areas of interest.


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