Breaking Gender Stereotypes in the Toy Box

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Did you conscientiously buy dolls for your son and trucks for your daughter, or did you try to avoid the whole thing and give them both gender-neutral artisanal wooden objects, only to be shanghaied by the princess industry and superhero underpants?

Looking at how children play with toys that fall into gender stereotypes gives us a window on children’s developing sense of what goes along with being a boy or a girl.

But it can also be an important indicator of what skills young children are acquiring as they play, and of whether their academic and professional horizons are comparatively wide — or whether they are already starting to rule things out for themselves.

A new study suggests the potential power of words and images to counter gender stereotypes and open up what children see as possible interests and activities for themselves. And experts say that those choices are significant because they can influence the skills children learn and the possibilities they see for themselves.

Lauren Spinner, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kent in England, was the first author on a study published in January in the journal Sex Roles, which looked at the effect of showing 4- to 7-year-olds images of children playing with either stereotypic or counter-stereotypic toys.

A researcher read aloud the words that were printed in a bubble beside the image. In one experimental group, the children followed gender stereotype: “Hello! My name is Sarah, and my favorite toy is My Little Pony! I have lots, and play with them every day.” “Hello! My name is Thomas, and every day I like to play with my cars. They’re my favorite toys!” For the other experimental group, Sarah had the car and Thomas had My Little Pony; the language was otherwise identical.

After they had seen the pictures, the children in the study were shown a set of toys, chosen to be stereotypically masculine and feminine (baby doll, jet fighter, tool kit, tea set) and asked who should play with which toy, and the children who had seen the counter-stereotypic pictures were more flexible in their answers, more open to the idea that both girls and boys might like toys from both sides of the conventional aisle.

They were also less rigid when they were asked which children from the pictures they wanted to play with; exposure to Sarah-with-the-car and Thomas-with-the-pony meant that children were more open to playing with representatives of the other gender. So the toys in the pictures affected who the children wanted as playmates.

Dr. Spinner pointed out that seeing the photos did not open up the children’s preferences for what toys they themselves wanted to play with; they were more likely to say that other boys and girls could play with a variety of toys, but the two experimental groups were equally unlikely to make those counter-stereotypic choices themselves. On the other hand, she said, it was only one exposure, and it’s possible, if there were more of those counter-stereotypic images around, that children might become more open to enjoying the whole spectrum of toys.

Laura Zimmermann, a developmental psychologist who is a professor of psychology at Shenandoah University in Virginia, was the first author on a study published last year in the Journal of Children and Media, which looked at preschool children’s responses to toy commercials. Children are showing more flexibility than they used to, she said, in terms of who they thought the ads were meant for, responding that both boys and girls, for example, could like Batman, or like the “female” line of Lego building blocks.

“Their behavior got much more stereotypical when they were asked their own preferences,” she said, and the boys especially were unwilling to say that they liked any of the ads aimed at girls.

But the ads themselves, she said, continue to reflect the same old stereotypes. “My concerns are that children’s ads shape and reinforce stereotypes,” Dr. Zimmermann said. “They are obviously not working alone; we have wider societal influences at work, but ads are powerful.”

This is not about taking away the doll, or banishing the train. “If they aren’t interested in engaging in non-stereotypic gender play that is O.K. too,” Dr. Zimmermann said in an email. “Children should be free to play with the toys they enjoy — toys should not be ‘assigned’ by gender.”

But there is also research to say that when the lines are drawn too strictly, children’s worlds become not only more divided, but also more limited. Traditionally masculine toys like blocks and puzzles, Dr. Spinner said, encourage visual and spatial skills, while traditionally feminine toys encourage communication and social skills.

“If children only play with one, then they are missing out on a whole host of skills,” she said.

They are also limiting their own interests and the scope of their futures.

“We know that these stereotypes that are being shaped and reinforced can be linked to a lot of different things from educational and occupational goals to academic ability to social development,” Dr. Zimmermann said. “It is really important to have children get this broad range of experiences.”

As children grow up, Dr. Spinner said, they do tend to become more flexible about what boys and girls can do; 7-year-olds are less rigid than 4- or 5-year-olds. But the messages they get from their environment are important, and so is the chance to play with toys — and with other children — in ways that don’t box them in too tightly.

“Mixed gender play is really important, getting boys and girls to play with one another and recognize behavioral similarities,” Dr. Spinner said. “Children can overcome their anxieties about playing with other-gender children if you can get them to understand there are a lot of similarities in what they like to play with, rather than focusing on the gender of the child.”

Somewhere between the ages of 2 and 3, children figure out whether they are boys or girls, developmental psychologists say, often citing Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of gender identity development; they go on from there to identify the people around them as male or female, and to create rules and categories of what behaviors and interests and habits go with which identity.

“The good news or bad news is, experience makes a difference,” Dr. Zimmermann said. The images children see can reinforce stereotypes and limit their horizons, but they can also open up possibilities and lead kids to believe that they have more choices. Children are actively seeking clues about what their gender identities mean; toys and play should give them space, not narrow their choices.

Many parents have stories of a girl who insisted on rocking a toy train to sleep, or a boy who pushed a doll along the floor, making train noises, foiling well-meaning parental attempts to foster non-stereotypic play. And parents don’t have to “eradicate” all stereotypical play, Dr. Zimmermann said in an email message.

“After all, a princess can play with worms. And ninja cupcakes are quite tasty.”