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Pink and purple dump truck

Colour coding childhood development

October 27, 2015

The possibilities seem endless on how many things could change if we were to stop organising the world by gender. Some of our colleagues are studying the positive effects of mixed-gender play, and I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that removing the stigma of cross-gender toy play could be a good first step toward those positive effects.Lisa Dinella - Co-Author of the research paper, 'Pink Gives Girls Permission'
Associate Professors’ Erica Weisgram, Lisa Dinella and Megan Fulcher share an interest in understanding how gender stereotypes can amplify differences, lead boys and girls in different directions and impact social relationships across the genders.

Their latest research builds on the premise that toy play is a fundamental aspect of young children’s daily experience and that the type of toy play in which children engage may shape their cognitive abilities and social development.

Thea Hughes asked them about their recently published paper entitled ‘Pink Gives Girls Permission’ which explores the impact colour can have on children’s toy preferences.

TH Erica, Lisa and Megan thank you all so much for agreeing to share your knowledge with us. Your research certainly makes for a very interesting read – particularly some of the findings about the impact colour can have on children’s behaviour and toy choices.

Your research builds on the premise that toy play is a fundamental aspect of young children’s daily experience and that the type of toy play in which children engage may shape their cognitive abilities and social development.

Can you each reveal a little about why this area of research is so important to you personally and also for the wider community? How did each of you become interested in gender stereotypes and the impact they have on early childhood development?

EW  I have always had an interest in working with and studying children in some way and as an undergraduate also became interested in gender and gender differences. When I began my formal study of Gender Development (gender and children) in graduate school, I discovered that boys and girls were actually very similar on many psychological constructs and that socially constructed gender stereotypes often lead them in different directions (toy choice, occupational choices, etc.).

In the area of toys, young children are often interested in a wide-variety of toys, but as they get older they constrain their toy choices based on gender stereotypes. Despite my best efforts to shield my own children from stereotypes, I sometimes see them wrestle with wanting to play with a toy or do an activity and thinking it is not ‘supposed’ to be for them. It is our hope that stereotypes about toys and activities can be reduced in the wider community so that children can freely follow their interests without stereotypes serving as barriers.

Not only are they playing with only half the toys, they do not spend much time playing with children who are interested in other toys and begin to see each other as opposites.
LD  I was raised by parents who encouraged me to explore my interests and empowered me to pursue a career of my choice. Gender was never a factor. In college, particularly as a young woman studying statistics, it became clear that my gender influenced others’ expectations of me. I started questioning how gender stereotypes begin and develop. I became intrigued by the idea that children’s play rooms are essentially the starting line for girls and boys being set down different paths. I often wonder how different the world would be if we encouraged children based only their strengths, and ignored what they ‘should’ be good at or ‘should’ find interesting.

MFAs an undergraduate I focused on child development but was also taking a lot of Women and Gender Studies classes. I found myself thinking about gender during psychology courses and children in Women’s Studies classes. Like a lot of people during emerging adulthood my values, attitudes, and identity were forming and a feminist perspective was very appealing to me. My daughter was born when I was a sophomore and I was surprised with the assumptions that people made about her, surprised by how limiting the ‘gender appropriate’ toys and clothes were to her development. I entered graduate school with the determination to examine how children’s gendered environments impact their development.

THYour paper raises the issue of a documented and concerning trend towards an “increase in marketing of toys only to one gender or the other primarily through the use of toy colour”, sighting research (Wong & Hines) that it may be “detrimental to boys’ and girls’ social and cognitive development if children choose or are offered almost exclusively gender-specific toys, they may only be able to build skills and competencies associated with such toys.”

So essentially: gendered marketing and colour coding of toys could magnify gender differences and opportunities for developing certain skills and abilities. Explicit gender labelling has a powerful impact on children?

EWWhen toys are marketed toward either boys or girls through explicit labels for example ‘Girls’ Building Sets’, depictions of only boys or girls in advertising, or implicit labels like color coding of toys, children (and many adults) develop stereotypes about who ‘should’ play with those toys. These stereotypes lead to differential toy choices for boys and girls and serve to reinforce the stereotypes creating a cycle and leading to boys and girls playing with different types of toys.

If these different types of toys (now considered ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ toys) have different features – such as emphasizing spatial skills or emphasizing verbal skills – then boys and girls may develop one set of skills, but may fall behind on others. For example, if most building toys are considered ‘for boys’, and more boys than girls are encouraged to play with these toys, then more boys will gain improved spatial skills, whereas girls who are not encouraged to play with building toys so much are not improving their spatial skills.

LD It is easy to see how explicitly labeling toys or activities as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ boxes children into playing with certain toys, but less attention is paid to the implicit labels such as color. When I teach college students about the downsides of color labelling toys, I place a picture of the ‘pink toy aisle’ next to the ‘blue toy aisle’ from our local toy store. I have them imagine being a little kid again, and ask them which aisle they will explore first. I then ask them how comfortable they would be going down ‘the other aisle’, especially if parents or peers were watching them. It is clear that one of the colors is inviting, and the other is a barrier. We know that children learn by playing with toys, and that different toys teach different skills. By directing children’s play via both explicit and implicit labels, we are essentially directing children’s learning.

MF My young niece and I were looking at a white toy princess carriage. It was clear that she really was interested in playing with the toy. When I asked her why she liked it she replied “Because it’s pink”. I looked at her confused and she continued “it’s not the color pink, but it is a pink thing”. We then had a long talk about what it means to be ‘pink’. It is clear that to my niece the color pink and femininity were interchangeable. Children may approach new toys or activities by first assessing the gender markers. This leaves many toys unexplored leading children to a very homogeneous set of experiences.

THWhat was the focus of your research and what did the findings reveal?

EWWe specifically focused on a few key issues in studying children’s toy preferences. We looked at the gender-typing of the toy (whether they were masculine or feminine by cultural standards), explicit labels for unfamiliar toys, and gender-typed colors (pink and purple for ‘feminine’ colors and blue, black, and red as ‘masculine colors’).

In our first study, we found that boys were more interested in masculine toys than feminine toys, regardless of the color of the toys—they would not want to play with toys they considered as being ‘for girls’. Girls were very interested in feminine toys regardless of the color and least interested in masculine toys that were red, blue, and black. Interestingly, masculine toys that were pink and purple (such as a pink monster truck) were of high interest to girls as if adding the pink color gave girls ‘permission’ to show interest in it.

We also introduced children to toys that were new to them, unfamiliar toys, and told them explicitly that they were either ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ as well as painting them either pink or blue. Boys were moderately interested in all the toys regardless of labels or colors. Girls were interested in the toys when they were labelled as ‘for girls’, were uninterested in toys that were labelled as ‘for boys’ and were blue, and again were moderately interested in toys that were labelled as ‘for boys’ and were pink—again the pink gave them permission to show an interest in the toys.

THPrevious research has demonstrated (LoBue and DeLoache 2011) that around age two-and-a-half girls develop a strong preference for ‘all things pink’ while boys begin to actively avoid anything pink. You predicted that feminine colours would have a stronger effect on children’s interests than masculine colours. Did your findings support this prediction?

EWWe found that masculine toys could become appealing to girls by adding pink, but adding masculine colors to feminine toys did not make them more appealing to boys. Interestingly, boys did not avoid the pink, masculine toys. They were just interested in toys associated with or labelled for their gender. It would be interesting to see if older boys, who may have stronger stereotypes about and avoidance of ‘pink’ would have the same responses…

As adults in society, we create the rules about how toys should be labelled. The history of Lego blocks is a great example of how much control we have …

THSo, it’s not that boys and girls are born with innate preferences for particular toys or colours; rather they are encouraged to develop different preferences? They acquire differences along the way? Could you elaborate a little on this idea?

EWAs with most things in psychology, it’s complicated. When it comes to color preferences, the research generally suggests that preferences for pink are socially constructed. Before children identify their own gender, they don’t seem to show a preference or avoidance of pink things, but after they are able to label their own gender, then a greater preference for girls, and avoidance for boys, emerges as LoBue and Deloache suggest.

However, with toy preferences, we know that children sometimes show gender-typed preferences before they are able to identify their own gender and that there is some effect of hormones on masculine toy preferences and play style. These suggest that there is a biological component. However, research such as ours that manipulates the labels and associations with unfamiliar toys suggests that these labels, colours, and depictions that are constructed by society also impact children’s toy choices. It’s complicated…

LDWe also know that early in life, children try to make their behaviors and preferences match their gender group. This means that when something is labelled as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’, children are likely to accept the item if the label matches their gender group, and reject it if it does not.

When toys are stereotyped as being for boys or for girls, rather than just being presented as fun toys, half of the children may accept the toy and the other half may reject it.

As adults in society, we create the rules about how toys should be labelled. The history of Lego blocks is a great example of how much control we have over whether a toy is presented as a ‘boy toy’ or ‘girl toy’. Originally, Lego was a toy for both boys and girls, and then the company started marketing the blocks to boys by pairing it with existing gender-typed genres such Star Wars. Just recently Lego started categorising the blocks as a ‘girl toy’ by making the blocks pink and creating sets based on other ‘girl-typed’ genres such as hair salons and hot air balloons. The blocks themselves did not change – just the rules and labels about who should play with them shifted. We also reinforce these categories via the toys that we purchase, and in our encouragement of children’s play choices.

MFJust like adults associate with the colors of their favorite sports team, girls and boys separate into ‘teams’ of blue and pink. So not only are they playing with only half the toys, they do not spend much time playing with children who are interested in other toys and begin to see each other as opposites. This perception of differences and segregation continue throughout development. That means that early toy play has an impact on social relationships across the genders.

THWhat are the biggest down sides? Who (did the findings suggest) is impacted most by gender stereotypes when it comes to ruling out play opportunities or interests?

LDWe are starting to see more attention paid to girls having access to activities that promote skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is great that the conversation has started about girls being ‘allowed’ access to these toys and activities. Less emphasis has been placed on boys having access to toys that promote nurturing and creativity through pretend play. Some research indicates that although boys experience the same range of emotions as girls, boys are less able to identify others’ emotions, and it is less acceptable for them to display their own emotions. It is possible that through opening boys’ access to these types of toys, these gender differences could be alleviated. In our study, the color blue did not give boys permission to cross the gender stereotyped line and play with toys that our society has deemed ‘for girls’. The stigma of boys acting like girls may be more entrenched than it is for girls acting like boys. It is unfortunate that we are truncating boys’ experiences.

MFIn our research on college students we see patterns emerging that support the idea that these effects may be long lasting. Both men’s and women’s visions of their future selves indicate a division of paid and unpaid labor that is specialized by gender. College men report feeling less competence for childcare tasks. Men’s feelings of incompetence may push women to take on a managerial role early in parenthood beginning the gendered parentingparenting roles we see in heterosexual families. It makes one wonder if men would feel more competent for nurturing tasks if they had more doll play as children.

The possibilities seem endless on how many things could change if we were to stop organising the world by gender.

THWhat do you think are the implications of these findings in relation to the marketing of toys? Are there any positives? What are your thoughts on colouring or branding toys pink, like Lego Friends and Goldiblox have done, in order to appeal to girls?

EWI have mixed feelings about coloring/branding toys pink to appeal toward girls. In my ideal world, all toys would come in many different colors, depict both boys and girls on their packaging, and explicit labels such as ‘Girls’ Building Toys’ would be eliminated – children would choose toys based on their interests. Although campaigns and movements have picked up steam toward this end, I believe that completely overhauling the current system will take some time. Lego and Goldiblox are working within the current system to draw girls in and making an effort to include girls in building, engineering, and STEM. Although I don’t like the current system, and also dislike that these companies often appeal to girls in a very stereotypical way and perpetuate the current system, I see the value of encouraging girls in STEM pursuits.

MFI worry that encouraging girls to be interested in engineering or math by stamping pink on such toys sends the message that girls can do these things but they do them differently than boys do. It may suggest that boys and girls are so different (or opposite) that they cannot even play with the same set of blocks.

It’s also important to remember that these toys come with a storyline or a task that often remains gendered. Girls might be asked to build shopping malls or create perfumes. It is unclear right now which message is more salient to the girls using these toys: shopping and perfume or building and chemistry.

THDoes it follow then, that by removing the colour coding, we may see more gender-similar play patterns, perhaps more opportunities for mixed-gender play if children’s interests weren’t encouraged to be so different..?

LDThe possibilities seem endless on how many things could change if we were to stop organising the world by gender. Some of our colleagues are studying the positive effects of mixed-gender play, and I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that removing the stigma of cross-gender toy play could be a good first step toward those positive effects.

THIf you had a magic wand, what would you change in relation to children and gender stereotypes and why?

EWIn an ideal world, gender stereotypes would be eliminated and children would make choices about toys, clothing, movies, activities, jobs, etc. based on their interests and talents rather than society’s prescriptions about how they ‘should’ behave based on their biological sex or gender. For this to occur, children would not make associations between gender categories and toys or activities as preschoolers and would not enforce gender stereotypes as older children. We have a long way to go before we are able to eliminate stereotypes among children, parents, and society, but understanding how stereotypes are formed and reduced through research may nudge us in this direction.

LDIn our house we have a saying “There are no such things as boy toys or girl toys, just toys and people.” I would hope that as a society we would stop organizing our children’s play by gender, and allow children to explore the world guided by their interests.

MFI of course echo Lisa and Erica’s comments. I wish there were a wide array of toys available to all children. I especially wish that nurturing toys and those that promote social development were available to all children. I think that in order for women to succeed in math and science there must be men ready and able to be partners in the care of young children.

THUntil then, it seems children are very much aware of gender stereotypes with boys feeling the boundaries more acutely than girls. Pink is a colour strongly associated with ‘feminine’, and is widely used by retailers and manufacturers to signify that something is ‘for girls’. Pink is being used increasingly to invite girls to participate in playing with toys they may otherwise avoid due to prevailing stereotypes.
We’ve only touched on a few of the downsides to this approach …
Thanks so much for your time.

Erica_WeisgramErica Weisgram, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She teaches courses on both Developmental Psychology and Psychology of Gender and also conducts research on these topics. Her current research interests include the causes and consequences of gender-typed play among young children, the formation and reduction of gender stereotypes, and girls’ and women’s interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). She lives in Wisconsin (USA) with her husband and their two young children.


Lisa_DinellaLisa M. Dinella, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Monmouth University and research scientist who investigates the relations between gender identity, academic achievement, and career development.  She is the principle investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory, where she studies the social and interpersonal factors that influence individuals’ academic and career pursuits. Lisa’s scientific research has led to articles in The Washington Post along with a book entitled Conducting Science-Based Psychology Research in Schools. Lisa’s most recent presentations have included themes such as the impact of media (including Disney Princesses) on girls’ gender identity, the role of pink and blue toys on children’s toy choice and learning, and the social factors impacting young men’s ideas about manhood.


Megan_FulcherMegan Fulcher, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. Her research focuses on gender development and children’s and young adults’ visions of their future selves. She has served as an expert witness on the development of children with lesbian and gay parents in several gay marriage cases. Current projects are investigating the impact of play with gender amplified dolls and college students’ plans for their future work and family lives.


Post By Thea Hughes (19 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and to found Play Unlimited. As a parent, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.


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