My favorite Christmas gift I ever received was a computer game—”Secret of the Scarlet Hand,” the sixth mystery in the Nancy Drew PC series. Playing the game, my friends, sister, and I would huddle around our bulky family Dell computer for hours on end. With one person controlling the mouse, the rest of us would watch earnestly, eyes glued to the screen, or peeping through spaces between fingers that nervously covered our faces.
Playing as the famed girl detective herself, we’d open forbidden passages and interview suspects around a museum exhibit of ancient Mayan artifacts. We completed cultural-, literary-, and science-based challenges, eventually losing our minds when Nancy became trapped inside a monolith with a mummy. I credit that game with the launch of my Nancy Drew obsession, and my interest in journalism that followed.
Perhaps the best part of the gift was that there wasn’t anything inherently masculine or feminine about the way the game looked or felt. I don’t remember feeling like Nancy had to “think like a man,” or that she was ever told she was smart “for a girl” to solve the mystery. It was a game that followed a female protagonist, not a game specifically made for girls—the kind of toy I’d hope to purchase for a niece or nephew to give them an opportunity to explore their interests.
There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with gender-specific toys—I was a huge “Barbie girl” growing up, too—but according to toy experts, we run into trouble when we limit children’s play to toys marketed to a specific gender, perhaps limiting children in their understanding of what they find interesting as a consequence.
It might seem daunting to purchase gender-inclusive toys for the kids in your life, especially if you may not necessarily know what the child likes. However, toy experts and advocates from Global Toy Experts, STEMToyExpert.com, and Let Toys Be Toys, break down how to shop with gender-inclusivity in mind this holiday season.
1) Steer clear of gendered packaging and stereotypical choices.
Richard Gottlieb, founder of toy consulting company Global Toy Experts, told the Daily Dot that this notion that pink is “for girls” and blue is “for boys” didn’t begin until the 1930s, when department stores began gendering baby clothes to sell more products. While stores in New York and Philadelphia were initially split on which color was “for girls,” pink eventually won out, its feminine connotation brought into the mainstream with the success of the Barbie doll.
Most obviously, this marketed packaging manifests itself into toy aisles and onto the boxes themselves. Gottlieb used the example of the original Battleship game, the exterior of which showed a father and son playing the game, with a mother and daughter doing dishes in the background.
Even representation in toy catalogs matter. Tessa Trabue, a campaigner with the United Kingdom-based gender-inclusion toy campaign Let Toys Be Toys, told the Daily Dot that it’s important for advertising and catalogs to show boys and girls playing with all toys—as opposed to seeing two girls play with dolls, or two boys play with building blocks. When children see this kind of representation, they better understand that these toys aren’t just for a specific gender, and are also for them.
“If [shoppers are] basing [toy purchases] on a gender, it’s going to be based on stereotypes, and that’s not the best way to shop for a child,” Trabue said. “[Parents have told me] that when people buy presents and they don’t know their children very well, they just end up with, say, a sea of Barbies for a girl, and the girl doesn’t even like Barbies. Do you really want to waste your money on a toy the child doesn’t even want?”
2) While toy brands might be introducing girls to STEM, gendered STEM toys are still gendered.
Let Toys Be Toys, which has helped push for gender-inclusivity in toys for about five years, doesn’t endorse certain toys or toy brands, Trabue said. However, she said that even when toy companies make toys such as engineering-based kits, home repair tools, or chemistry sets specifically for girls, these products are still gendered. In being gendered, these toys continue to send the message that girls are different and need a special way to get into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.
Will Asbury, owner of STEMToyExpert.com, told the Daily Dot that the organization too holds mixed opinions. However, this seemingly reinforced gender bias doesn’t mean these STEM-specific toys for girls don’t serve a purpose.
“Whilst we agree that toys can play an important role in encouraging girls into STEM, it does seem counterintuitive that we are designing toys specifically aimed at girls in an effort to reduce gender bias!” Asbury wrote in an email. “That said, if STEM toys for girls do encourage more girls to enter STEM fields, then we do not see the harm in it.”
STEMToyExpert.com’s list of the top STEM toys for girls includes several of these gendered options, including the popular GoldieBlox interactive toys, and a roller coaster and amusement park building kit from Lego Friends. To find STEM-related toys that don’t enforce a gender bias, however, Trabue suggested gift shops within museums and science centers. She also suggested looking into independent toy stores, which may have a greater selection gender-inclusive toys but might be on the pricier side than big box stores.
Of course, these options may not be available to people who don’t live in cities with such centers, so it never hurts to do a little online shopping, too. Asbury, whose website specializes in discussing STEM toys, told the Daily Dot that adults may be interested in looking into Lego Boost, a robot coding and building set, and Anki Cozmo, an artificial intelligence-based robot, which are both gender-inclusive.
3) Don’t forget about toys that emphasize caring activities for boys.
Gottlieb said that this push for gender-inclusive toys should, above all, make it so that children don’t feel there’s a “no-go zone” in the toy department—this goes for boys as well. Trabue said Let Toys Be Toys specifically uses the Twitter hashtag #caringboys to promote and encourage the practice of boys using caring toys, such as dolls and strollers, play kitchen sets, and cleaning toys.
In our #toycatalogues2017 research, of 128 children with baby dolls, just ten were boys. Eight in the @ELCUK catalogue, one each in @toysrusuk and @Tesco More #caringboys please! pic.twitter.com/xwpakNMkSY— Let Toys Be Toys (@LetToysBeToys) December 6, 2017
However, because many of these kinds of toys are pink, boys are still resistant to choose and play with such toys. Going back to the point of gender-inclusive packaging and advertising, Trabue emphasized the discouraging nature of caring toys as a reason to advocate for companies to dismantle gendered toy aisles and catalogs altogether.
“We think it’s very important that boys are allowed the chance to play with caring dolls and explore these activities…It’s nice on the packaging if they could see a boy playing with the doll,” Trabue said. “It’s strange. Why wouldn’t you want to give boys the chance to explore caring play? Even if they don’t become fathers, don’t want them to be caring human beings?”
In the U.K. this is already happening—the Let Toys Be Toys campaign has helped remove gendered signage from toy aisles in major U.K. retailers, such as the Entertainer and Boots, and has also seen a 70 percent drop of online retailers ending the use of gendered denotations on catalogs. The campaign also gives out “Toymark” awards to book and toy businesses that market their products gender-inclusively.
Gottlieb’s company, too, has also helped lead toy companies toward more inclusive products, and assisted in removing gender categories from the annual Toy of The Year awards. But in the United States, one look at the Toys-R-Us website in their segregated toys for boys’ and girls’ outdoor play, as pointed out by Trabue, shows how much further mainstream toy companies need to go to achieve gender-inclusivity.
However, consumers in doubt about what to purchase their niece or nephew don’t need to shell the out big bucks for the perfect toy. After all, it’s the thought behind the toy that counts—literally.
“Think in more terms of the interest of the child, or your interest—there are two ways to give a gift,” Gottlieb said.