Gender Neutral Toy Marketing Is Actually Good for Kids, According to Science

UPDATED 11/24/20

Starting with the iconic 1964 action figure GI Joe, the male collectible action figure has traditionally been aimed at boys. However, with gender-neutral toys becoming all the rage, action figure heroes are blurring the lines between “boys” and “girls.” Many toy stores are now marketing their action figure toy sets as “for kids,” to limit gender biases and reap a larger market. After all, kids play quite similarly, whether boys or girls.

Going Christmas shopping could entail purchasing a gender-neutral action figure in package suitable for either boys or girls. Gone are the days of pink and blue aisles for children, and adults are getting in on the act too. Today, with adults collecting action figures, the market for gender-neutral toys is rapidly expanding.

Traditionally macho toys are being given a face-lift to blur gender lines and reflect a contemporary society where man-buns, man bags, and metro men with eyeliner and manicures proliferate. Girly toys are also redefining the toy world for kids with almost masculine action figures like Wonder Woman and Star War’s heroine, Ray, gaining popularity.

Accepting the truth may be hard, yet gender-neutral toys for kids are here to stay.

Although opinions varied last month when Target announced an end to its gendered toy aisles, research may actually show that abolishing “boy” toy and “girl” toy labels may actually be a good thing.

Quartz writer Maureen Shaw cited a number of studies that point to the benefit of gender neutral toys for children. Essentially, she says, gendered toys are more limiting to children than many adults realize, according to research by many child psychologists.

“Studies have found that gendered toys do shape children’s play preferences and styles,” Dr. Elizabeth Sweet was quoted in Shaw’s article. “Because gendered toys limit the range of skills and attributes that both boys and girls can explore through play, they may prevent children from developing their full range of interests, preferences, and talents.”

That’s what the concern for parents should be, according to research. Children who play in stimulating environments, regardless of which toys they select, have a 25% increased chance of learning in those situations.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of Target’s switch to gender-neutral is Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. “God created two different genders,” Graham wrote on Facebook. “If you agree, share in the comments below — and let Target know… that you are perfectly willing to shop where the genders God created are appreciated.”

But children are well aware of their genders — even if they don’t match the ones assigned at birth — early on. In an interview with New York Magazine, developmental psychologist Christine Brown explained, “We know kids know their gender really early — they know it by about two years old.”

Most children are still told to play with toys for their gender, but psychologists have also found that children were more open to playing with different toys depending upon how they were labeled.

Carol Lynn Martin of Arizona State University gave children a number of seemingly neutral toys during an experiment, like magnetic toys and flip books, and saw no real difference in how the boys and girls rated their enjoyment of those toys.

In a second experiment, however, Martin and her colleagues placed the toys into two bins, labeled “boys” and “girls,” and the children only removed toys from their respective gender categories.

All the removal of Target’s signage does is help children have more access to more toys. Sweet explained that neutral toys help kids “be free to explore their diverse interests beyond the narrow confines to gender stereotypes. Taking down a sign that says ‘Girls’ Building Sets’ doesn’t prevent a girl from selecting that toy, it simply means that a boy could also choose it.”

Attitudes are beginning to shift for many parents. Even President Obama, when asked to sort through donations at a Toys for Tots event last December, placed items such as basketballs, Lego sets, and T-ball into the “girls” bin instead of the one for boys.

Internationally, Shaw wrote, movements in the U.K. like “Let Toys Be Toys” aim to limit gendered marketing in toy stores and departments around the country. And that could lead to positive changes later on in kids’ lives.

“The stereotypes we see in toy marketing connect with the inequalities we see in adult life,” says the Let Toys Be Toys website. “By late primary age, research… shows that children already have very clear ideas about the jobs that are suitable for boys and girls; ideas that are very hard to shake later on.”

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