Stepping Out of the Toy Box

A doll packed toy aisle

There’s no denying that children’s toys are marketed by gender. Walk through the pink, princess packed, plastic-gem encrusted isles of your local Toy’s R Us and you’ll see it for yourself. These isles are “supposed” to be for little girls – and majority of the children you will see playing on the boxes of these toys will be girls. Move over to the next isle and it will be completely different sight. You’ll find an isle packed with robots, train sets and tinker toys in every shade of blue and green – in boxes covered with little boys.

The Spacial Advantage

A spacial abilities test

A spacial abilities test

The marketing of toys by gender not only limits what little boys and girls are being shown what is “appropriate” to for them to play with – but it is starting to affect their abilities.  A recent article from Psychology Today reports that first grade boys and girls test significantly differently in spacial abilities, a math based skill that is not taught in schools. Boys and girls can typically increase their results overtime by how much they practice this skill. The conclusion from this study is that girls have less experience with spacial tasks than boys. The researchers explain that playing with Lego’s was one of the ways that boys have the advantage to practice these skills, there for playing with Legos can help little girls close this gender gap in spacial abilities. The difficult part of this is finding ways to encourage little girls to play with toys that will increase their spacial abilities, hand eye coordination and creativity.

The theory of social learning developed by Walter Michel, can help explain how boys and girls gravitate to their “appropriate” toys. In Gendered Lives by Julia T. Wood social learning theory is described as process that individuals learn to be masculine or feminine primarily by imitating others, and getting responses from others to their behavior. As a child grows older, they begin to learn what behavior is appropriate for their gender by the communication they receive from others and through imitating the behavior of people around them. This communication can be about what they where, or what toys they should play with. Because children respond well to rewards, they are likely to develop gendered patterns that are approved by others. This could be in the form of a parent awarding a child with a gender “appropriate” toy, which may end up disadvantaging their development.

Getting the Girls to Build

Lego Friends play set

Recently Lego has created a line of toys market to little girls, the “Lego Friends” line. While the line has received a lot of criticism for continuing gender stereotypes like having “Beauty Shop” and “Bakery” kits, the line of Lego toys is encouraging girls to construct things. It takes a toys like this to spark the interest in little girls who may only be interested in the “Beauty Shop” aspect of the toy set to create things with their own hands, which may improve their spacial skills and encourage them to keep building.

There have also been other toys created to spark the interest of girls to get into the field of engineering, a field that women are traditionally underrepresented, like the Hummingbird, a robotics kit designed to encourage older girls to build. We can only hope that toys like these will create an interest in more girls to build, and eventually begin to bridge the gap between boys and girl’s  spacial skills.