Is it time to rethink the toys we’re giving our boys and girls?

Are children born with a natural preference for cars or dolls? Yes, say many parents. But when we gave young children the choice, they did something different...

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When my twin sons were 6 months, we went to a friend’s house. And that’s when my sons discovered them. Cars. A box full of cars. At 6 months, they’d never seen a toy car before. Now their eyes were on stalks. It was as if they’d discovered the meaning of life.

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My 2-year-old daughter? Zero interest. It was the first time I got to thinking, was this a boy thing?

But is there such a thing as a boys’ toy? Or a girls’ toy? Are children born with a built-in preference for certain toys based on their sex?

Wheels vs dolls

Certainly famous scientific experiments have found, through eye-tracking studies, that baby boys prefer wheeled toys and baby girls slightly prefer dolls.

So we decided to run our own studies – first asking more than 1000 parents what they think and then observing three groups of children (babies, 3 year olds and 6 year olds) making their own free toy choices.

The results are as fascinating as they are surprising.

We’ve learned that most parents think yes, there is a gender difference, but most young children say no – with their choices. That is, until we asked the 6 year olds.

So, is it time for parents to think again? #RethinkToys

What parents told us in our survey…

“Boys like cars, girls like dolls”

There was a huge difference when it came to the science-based cars vs dolls question.

  • 80% of their sons like to play with cars but only 19% like to play with dolls
  • 43% of their daughters like to play with cars but 71% like to play with dolls
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“There’s a gender difference at just three years old”

Half of parents believe that at just three years old, children have a built-in preference based on their gender

  • 56% of 3-year-old boys have a preference for boys’ toys
  • 48% of 3-year-old girls have a preference for girls’ toys

“Toy preference is natural”

More than half of these parents believe that toy preference is down to nature.

52% of the parents who said their boys preferred boys’ toys said this was an innate preference.

It was even higher for girls. 60% of the parents who said their girls preferred girls’ toys said this was innate.

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So that’s what our survey said. But our social experiment said different

We invited 32 children, equal numbers of boys and girls:

  • 10 who were 6-12 months old
  • 12 who were 3 years old
  • 10 who were 6 years old

We separated the children into their three age groups and gave them free choice from a selection of age-appropriate toys. Following the methods of previous scientific experiments, we  divided the toys into:

  • toys with wheels
  • doll-like toys with faces
  • general activity toys (which were more gender neutral)

And this is what happened…

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Babies aged 6-12 months

The babies showed almost no preference for gender-specific toys. Instead they all loved the same kind of toys: ones that moved, made noises or they could chew. If they could touch, shake or bash something and it did something in return – it was a big hit.

Saying that, there was one baby boy who went straight for the truck and made it clear he was only interested in playing with the wheeled toys.

The toys they weren’t interested in were the doll-like ones – unless they could chew them. At this early age, it appeared the dolls were just too passive.

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3 year olds

Ah, the 3 year olds just loved all the toys. The boys played with pink dolls and craft toys as well as wheeled and activity toys – as did the girls.

Play-Doh was one of the top favourites, along with toys with wheels. Toy strollers, pull-along toy wagons and Peppa Pig ice cream van were big hits for boys and girls. The Frozen wagon was popular with the girls, but most were also happy pulling the blue Planes wagon.

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Dolls came in to their own at this age – both the baby dolls and the character ones (Elsa, Pochahontas and King Bob Minion). Several of the 3-year-old boys played with the dolls – in role play, conversations with other dolls and imaginative play. One boy chose the doll with the pink swimsuit as his favourite toy of the day.

Again, there was one 3-year-old boy who went straight for the cars and was only interested in pushing toys with wheels around.

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6 year olds

By 6, the open attitude to toys had changed.

No boys played with dolls – except action figures. The girls weren’t interested in the action figures but loved the fashion dolls.

The scooters were popular with both boys and girls, but the boys tended to nab them and scoot around fast. One girl said she didn’t want to choose a scooter because it wasn’t good to ride indoors, while a couple of the parents said their daughters probably wanted to ride on them, but were waiting until they were free. They had a long wait.

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It wasn’t all divisive. The general activity toys were played with by all. Hama beads got a big thumbs up from a couple of the boys as well as the girls. KerPlunk and a fishing game were constantly played with by mixed groups.

When it came to cars, these were most popular with the boys, although one of the girls enjoyed the remote control car. And then there was the Barbie car. Hugely popular with the girls. Would a boy touch it? “Uggh no. It’s for girls.”

One pair of girls did race the Barbie car with the Mini. Another said she didn’t like racing cars, because they’d bump into things. The boys saw this as the point…

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So there’s a big mismatch between our survey and our experiment

Half of parents think there is an early gender difference. But we didn’t observe a natural, innate gender difference when it comes to toys.

For most babies, there are no boys’ toys or girls’ toys.

For most 3 year olds, there are no boys’ toys or girls’ toys.

But 6-year-old children have learned there ARE ‘boys’ toys and ‘girls’ toys.

Why did we observe different results to some classic experiments?

We spoke to Professor Melissa Hines, who led some of the most famous scientific research, with both babies and monkeys.

“Although your observations of children playing with toys included small 
numbers of children, the procedure showed that there is individual 
variability within each sex in girls’ and boys’ toy interests,” she concludes.

She explains that numerous studies have shown that boys and girls can differ – on average. But that some of the girls liked toy vehicles more than dolls, and some boys liked dolls. It’s all about averages, rather than individuals.

“Your findings highlight this individual variability within groups of boys and girls,” adds Professor HInes. “In sum, people tend to see average differences between the sexes as applying to individuals to a greater extent than they actually do.”

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But let’s not beat ourselves up about this…

It’s completely natural for parents to see gender differences, explains child development expert, Professor Patrick Leman who is Dean of Education, Institue of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“Humans are hard-wired to find the differences between people, because this tells us who we are,” he explains. “Parents naturally do this as soon as children are born and children learn from a very early age that they are a boy or a girl.

“Your research is very interesting. On the face of it, it doesn’t fit perceived scientific thinking that there’s an innate preference for gender-type toys, particularly for boys.

“It shows that different children like different toys. And as parents, we need to remind ourselves that we’re raising individuals, not just boys or girls.”

Ultimately, we’re only talking toys. Why is it so important to rethink?

It’s important, because parents tell us it’s affecting the toys we choose for our children.

In our survey, parents revealed that gender is guiding the toys they buy:

  • Only 33% of parents have bought their son a toy that’s traditionally thought to be a girls’ toy
  • Just 53% of parents have bought their daughter a toy that’s traditionally thought to be a boys’ toy
  • Only two thirds (67%) of parents would buy their son a pink toy

Which is exactly what happened to me. When I saw how much my sons loved cars, I bought them more, along with trains and trucks. But not a single doll or traditional girls’ toy.

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“It’s important we encourage a wide variety of play before the opportunities close down,” says Professor Leman. “Small differences between the sexes become magnified and by the time children are at primary school, they’ve been socialised into gender roles. We can see this with the 6 year olds in the research.

“By this age, the biggest reinforcers of gender differences are the children themselves. Boys can be particularly damning of things that they see are for girls. It quickly becomes a fact.”

So what can we do?

The debate about toys and gender is raging hard right now. Many stores have pulled down their Toys for Boys and Toys for Girls signage over the past couple of years. Toys are now displayed by genre rather than gender (but walk into most toy shops and you’ll still see aisles of pink toys and other aisles with black, red and blue toys).

A lot of these changes are thanks to Let Toys Be Toys, a campaigning group calling for the toy and publishing industries to stop promoting toys and books just for girls or just for boys.

We talked to Tricia Lowther, one of the founders of Let Toys Be Toys, who said, “This video shows very clearly that we can’t know children’s toy preferences based just on their gender. The evidence tells us that children are steered towards play that is considered appropriate for either boys or girls, which can shut off avenues of interest they may otherwise pursue, and reinforce negative stereotypes. 

“It’s long past time we stopped using gender as a reason to choose toys and let children choose for themselves.”

While current activity targets manufacturers and retailers, we feel it’s time to look closer to home.

MadeForMums is asking parents to rethink. Our research shows it’s time for us as parents to change and start thinking outside the traditional toy box. We’re not asking children to swap trucks with tea sets but it is the right time for us to break the cars-for-boys and dolls-for-girls habit.

So next time there’s a birthday or Christmas list, why not throw in a couple of wildcard toys – and see what happens.

We’ve got loads more on toys…

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