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How it matters

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Toys are powerful influencers of your child’s long-term development, but just how powerful we are only beginning to discover.

According to child psychologist, the toys you choose for your child could change how they play and even limit or expand their choices later in life.

And how strongly a toy is associated with stereotyped roles of being a boy or a girl can affect their influence on traits such as violence and aggression through to a desire to look pretty.

Researchers from Purdue University in Indiana, US, have concluded that strongly gender-typed toys appear to be less supportive of optimal development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.

“Strongly gender-typed toys might encourage attributes that aren’t ones you actually want to foster,” says Prof. Judith Blakemore, dean of Arts and Sciences for Faculty Development at the university.

“For girls, this would include a focus on attractiveness and appearance, perhaps leading to a message that this is the most important thing—to look pretty. For boys, the emphasis on violence and aggression (weapons, fighting, and aggression) might be less than desirable in the long run.”

Prof. Blakemore and a team of fellow psychologists identified more than 100 toys and classified them into how much each was associated with boys, girls or neither.

They then divided the toys into five categories based on these ratings:

  1. strongly feminine,
  2. moderately feminine,
  3. neutral,
  4. moderately masculine, and;
  5. strongly masculine.

“We found that girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skill, whereas boys’ toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous,” Prof. Blakemore says.

“The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as neutral or moderately masculine.”

Prof. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith from the Centre for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, agrees.

try to set aside previous conceptions about what inspires male and female play and objectively observe toy effects to be sure boys and girls equally benefit
His centre conducts an annual study of children playing with toys nominated by teachers, parents, researchers and the children themselves.

“The most important finding emerging from our studies is that different toys impact children’s behaviour in different ways,” Prof. Trawick says.

“Some toys have a powerful influence on children’s thinking, interaction with peers, and creative expression. Other toys do not.

“Some of the toys that look most interesting to adults are not particularly effective in promoting development.”

Prof. Trawick says these impacts are particularly strong when it comes to issues of gender and many of the toys nominated by parents and teachers were most often used by boys.

“This included items that seemed gender-neutral from an adult perspective,” he says.

“What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls.”

The take-home message for parents and teachers alike is to ensure equal access for boy and girls to all toys.

“Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example, elicited the highest quality play among girls,” Prof. Trawick says.

“So, try to set aside previous conceptions about what inspires male and female play and objectively observe toy effects to be sure boys and girls equally benefit from play materials. “