Gender Neutral Play

Recent political events and last weekend's 'Women's March' shone a spotlight onto a number of gender issues, bringing a number of topics up for discussion. In addition, the Institution of Engineering and Technology's statement that gender stereotyped toys can deter females from pursuing careers in science and technology stirred up much discussion right before Christmas.  

Today, the BBC questioned the scientific research upon which the Institution had based their official statement, publishing a short video article entitled "pink girly toys don't deter women from engineering," which they carefully put together from a sample size of one.

In the video, Jade, an engineer at Sellafield nuclear plant, explains that she always played with Barbies and dolls as a child, but this did not put her off mathematics or engineering. As if to highlight the BBC's uncharacteristically weak journalism, Jade concludes that "I will encourage my children to play with whatever they want to play with, be it pink, blue, rainbow coloured, it's up to them," suggesting that she believes allowing children access to all types of toys, and not pushing them down a particular gendered path, is what is most important, and presumably the very same message that the Institution of Engineering and Technology was promoting in the first place.

The Importance of Play

Most of a young child’s social and life skills are derived from play. Whilst the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that a third of toys targeted at boys focused on science, technology or engineering, only 11% of toys targeted for girls did the same.

Restricting access to a full range of skills, even subconsciously, can prevent children from discovering and developing their true preferences, and can even promote bullying if these norms are not adhered to for those who do break into the domain traditionally occupied by the other gender.

Educators are now urging toy manufacturers and retailers to adopt a gender-free attitude in their marketing strategies in order to significantly broaden the social and life skills learned by the very young of both genders.

The Significance of Toys in Early Childhood Development

The majority of stores arrange their toy displays by placing items based on gender on opposite sides of the aisle. By doing this they not only subconsciously restrict consumer choices, but also deny children the educational value to be found in all toys. Arts and crafts activities are generally assigned to the female side of the aisle, when the truth is that they are great for helping children to develop fine motor skills, as well as patience and perseverance. Spatial and problem-solving skills are greatly enhanced by the construction toys reserved for boys, while the lessons to be learned from toys based on science and technology have obvious benefits for all. Items that encourage dress-up and role play can have an enormous impact on a child’s social development.

The Impact of Toys in Education

Children are not born with a fixed identity or set of beliefs. These are acquired by the interaction they have with relatives, educators and friends. The norms passed on to children in the 1950s where the purpose of a female was to marry, raise children and keep a clean and comfortable home for her husband is almost totally foreign to modern women. The stereotypical male of the time would also not likely survive the climate of gender equality prevalent today. The law today thankfully demands equal opportunities for all, and to accommodate that, children need to develop equal sets of skills.

Who Is Responsible for Educational Equality

In order to develop a sense of equality in children, parents, educators and toy retailers must share equal responsibility. Experts agree that a child’s natural interests should be the primary motivator and that means not restricting their choice of toys. Children given this freedom will enjoy their play times far more, which will give them greater confidence in their own abilities, motivate greater social skills and encourage a common positive language between genders. Retailers are already being encouraged to stop gender-based marketing of toys and parents are being encouraged to allow their children total freedom of expression. This offers parents the opportunity to correct unacceptable social behaviour in a playful and non-judgemental manner, while providing the child with greater social skills including a lesson on how conflict should be resolved.

Conclusion

Helping young children to express themselves without guilt or social censure must include exposing them to a full range of stimuli early in life, and letting them play with toys of their choice as they continue to grow. Getting rid of stereotypical perceptions and encouraging children to trust their own instincts is the surest means of producing a well-rounded young adult.

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