December 10, 2013
They’re probably all great toys and thoughtfully chosen, but did you know that they can have large impacts on the future directions of your child’s life?
In fact, it’s a touch more definite than that; they will have large impacts on the future directions of your child’s life.
Early childhood researchers have for some time been documenting the effects of certain toys on boys and girls and how their gender labelling affects play differently and the attitudes, beliefs and choices made later in life.
We focus on the physical safety of the toys we purchase – small, moving parts etc – but not on the developmental or emotional side of things.
But these unseen factors – while unlikely to be life-threatening – are considerable.
And the effects are long-term.
In their paper, ‘The Effects of Stereotyped Toys and Gender on Play Assessment in Children Aged 18-47 Months’, researchers from Creighton University and the University of Nebraska found that the gendered association with toys changed the nature of play considerably.
“The gender associated with toys, objects and/or characters can have significant impact on toy preferences,” they wrote.
“Moreover, children’s play with toys and their toy choices have also been shown to have long-term consequences for later social and cognitive development.”
The researchers note that play with ‘stereotypically feminine’ toys seems to elicit nurturing, proximity, and role-play … whereas play with ‘stereotypically masculine’ toys tends to foster higher mobility, activity and manipulative play.
Similar research has found that play with feminine-stereotyped toys also encourages girls to learn rules, to imitate behaviour and to use adults as sources of help, whereas, masculine-stereotyped toys often re-enforces a need to give correct answers and conduct independent exploration.
Of course none of this would be a developmental problem if children had balanced and open access to both stereotypically-boy and stereotypically-girl toys.
However the application of these gendered labels to toys is the very reason their access becomes restricted.
In their 1991 research “Observations of Parent Reactions to Sex-Stereotyped Behaviors: Age and Sex Effects’, Beverly Fagot and Richard Hagan found that boys were particularly short-changed in their access to the full play spectrum.
They found that fathers give notably less positive responses to sons who engage in ‘girls’ play’ than do mothers, whereas both parents are not only tolerant, but supportive, of girls who play with stereotypical ‘boys toys’.
The researchers also found that boys are socialised to be more sensitive to the gender-appropriateness of the toys they select, being careful to meet expectations. Again here, it is fathers exerting the greater influence.
That restriction not only diminishes a boy’s time spent developing certain attributes, such as the ability to nurture or be close, but it has a huge impact on the complexity of the play being undertaken.
However if boys are being actively discouraged from such toys, they are also being discouraged from more complex forms of play – to the point where the researchers say it can make them seem under-developed.
“Because boys tend to have stronger own-gender stereotyped preferences than girls, they may avoid playing with these particular toys and therefore not display highly-complex play behaviours,” the team found.
“The boys’ lack of play with traditionally female toys (especially those eliciting higher levels of complex play) due to their stereotyped preferences may potentially lead practitioners to underestimate the boys’ current cognitive functioning, which in turn could lead to the over identification of boys for early intervention services.”
The segregation of boys and girls in their types of play starts from their first trip to the toy room – in fact, some researchers have found that it is as early as at 18 months that boys and girls start to learn to differentiate the gender-appropriateness of a toy.
That awareness continues through their play in teenage years in the forms of screen-play on phones, computers and tablets.
A 2006 study found that as children got older, they reported playing more ‘masculine’ video games.
“Given the differential interests, the lack of appeal, and scarcity of femine games, it is not surprising that they tend to play computer games less often than the boys,” Drs Isabelle Cherney and Kamala London Newton wrote.
“This discrepancy may place girls at a disadvantage for the development of spatial and computer skills.”
In their paper ‘Gender-linked Differences in the Toys, Television Shows, Computer Games, and Outdoor Activities of 5-to 13-year-old Children’, the researchers also warned of an equivalent downside for boys.
“The excessive play with violent games may lead boys to use aggression to solve problems,” according to Cherney and London.
“Boys who spend significantly more time than girls playing with violent video games are more at risk for the development of aggressive cognition.”
The awareness of gender stereotyped toys and the accepted appropriateness is partly informed and often capitalised on by toy retailers, advertisers, marketeers and manufacturers.
‘Pink and blue’, ‘girls and boys’, ‘pretty and adventurous’ … parents are equally manipulated into believing there are acceptable and unacceptable toys for their children, all split along gender lines.
And just like the genie in the bottle, once it is out there, it’s not coming back; children are quick to pick up on the subtle cues of parents, society and more particularly, other children. They then start to make choices about toys themselves based on these damaging stereotypes.
For worse and not better, we have managed to form a self-perpetuating paradigm around the gendering of toys and the substantial knock-on effects created by their social restriction.
Throughout their developing years, there are so many influences on your child’s life, many about which you will not get an opportunity to have your say.
What is lying beneath your Christmas tree this year should not be one of them.
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