With Christmas fast approaching, children across the country are compiling lists to Father Christmas with what they would like to receive. However, just as parents have increasingly sought to free their children from gender stereotyping when it comes to the colours of clothing their children wear, moving away from the notion of pink for girls and blue for boys; children’s toys and games have also become another arena in the battle over gender stereotypes.

Ladybird, the children’s book publisher, has announced that it will no longer offer gender-specific titles, in a bid to allow children to read more freely.

The move by Ladybird to render its books gender-neutral can be seen as part of an overarching shift towards children’s entertainment and toys that do not encourage gender stereotyping. The move comes as parents become increasingly aware that the gender divisions used to market toys and books could result in children being conditioned to certain criteria about what it means to be a boy or a girl. This is reflected in Mintel data which shows that some 22% of respondents do not think that girls and boys should play with different kinds of toys (fashion dolls for girls, cars and trucks for boys for example).

In 2012, a parent-led campaign group launched the ‘Let Toys be Toys’ campaign, designed to encourage toy makers to remove gender labelling from toys. Since the launch of the campaign, a number of major retailers, including Marks & Spencers, Debenhams and Boots have all agreed to remove gender designations from their toys and displays. It is not only parents having their say however; in November 2014, Tesco was forced to remove a sign which referred to a superhero alarm clock as a “gift for a boy” after a complaint from a seven-year-old girl on Twitter went viral.

A parallel campaign has also been launched, designed to encourage publishing firms to move away from specific gender positioning. The campaign has been highly successful, and Ladybird joins a long list of accomplished writers, including the children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Pullman, as well as the bookstore Waterstones.

This support indicates an opportunity for more companies to develop toys that will ‘let kids be kids’. Toy brands could benefit from actively marketing their toys as being suitable for both girls and boys, letting children decide what they would like to play with, rather than predetermining this for them. For example, brands and retailers could move away from using pink to denote that an item is targeted at girls and blue for boys, instead using a more varied palette of colours that will make it clear that children can play with whatever toys they like. Brands could also look more at creating marketing that shows boys and girls playing together, rather than separately.

22% of respondents do not think that girls and boys should play with different kinds of toys

A key driver behind the attempt to stop gender stereotyping is that conditioned gender roles can affect the path children take as they grow up. This is evidenced in Mintel data, which shows that a child’s or teenager’s career aspirations are still strongly influenced by traditional gender conceptions, with girl’s more likely to want to pursue a caring or creative role. For example 13% of girls said they want to be a Doctor/ nurse/ dentist compared to 6% of boys and 15% of girls said they wanted to do something creative compared to 6% of boys. Similarly boys are more likely to aspire to professions such as an athlete (16% vs 3%) or to start their own business (9% vs 4%).

Brands could look into developing toys that expand career horizons for children, for example LEGO launched the first ever female LEGO scientist character in August 2014, designed to encourage more young girls to pursue a career in science. Brands could also look to avoid stereotyping toys such as children’s kitchen sets and household products, by showing boys as well as girls on their packaging, thus appealing to parents who want to encourage their children to think beyond gender stereotypes when it come to future life choices.

Finally, toys have also come under fire for instilling children with image insecurities. Barbie has been one of the most notable examples of this in recent years, with critics taking issue with the doll’s appearance, saying they offer unrealistic misconceptions about how they should look. Similarly, boys’ action figures have been blamed for the increasing number of men experiencing eating disorders, with the highly athletic physique being unachievable for most.

In November 2014, a US-based start-up launched the first doll made with typical body proportions, rather than the distorted proportions currently used to make Barbie. The Lammily dolls, not only have a body shape that resembles real human proportions, but also comes with a range of stickers that allow children to add stretch marks, scars and acne to the doll.

This could be expanded upon by more brands, looking to create more dolls that feature realistic proportions, as well as toys or dolls with disabilities. This echoes calls by the children’s illustrator Quentin Blake, that more illustrators and authors should include disabled children in their publications in order to be more inclusive.

Brands therefore could meet the evident demand by creating gender neutral toys that stray from traditional stereotypes, as well as producing toys that reflect real human appearances, coming in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and disabilities.

For more information please see Mintel’s Toy Retailing – UK, 2014 and Lifestyles of Children and Teens – UK, 2014 reports.

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