Toy aisles divided into blue and pink are increasingly a relic. But as I watch kids in free play at houses, schools, playgrounds, the world seems forever gender divided.
When I pick my daughter up from her after school program where kids get “free choice”–go outside on the playground or stay inside and make a craft–there’s not a boy in in the craft area and not a girl on the playground. At daycare, the morning begins with open play which really means girls doing art while boys stack towers. The everyday work of play remains gender segregated.
With the holidays–however you celebrate–families and friends have an opportunity to help kids break out of limiting gender norms by choosing gifts that open worlds rather than reinforce patterns. Kids feel empowered when they’re whole. Kids not only learn skills playing across a gender “divide” but also make cross-gender friends which is essential to developing life skills and complex friendships. Kids grow up to make different life and career choices when not limited by gender. Of course, you don’t just have to buy something to encourage these experiences: with sharing, thrifting, friend/neighbor crowdsourcing, you can urge kids to expand their world without spending a ton of money.
Here Are A Half Dozen Break-Out Norms And Their Related Break-Out Toys:
GIRLS PLAY WITH ACTION FIGURES
While we still have a dearth of girl options in superhero stories and film, there are a few attempts to “add women and stir.” Meaning–girls are added into a male superhero-centered universe, but for young girls and boys, it still matters that girls get a role, a voice, and aren’t relegated purely to Barbie sideline status. Thank goodness for start-up toy companies like IAmElemental aiming to challenge toy conglomerate status quo. They have the best tagline: “If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story.” IAmElemental action figures have character-quality based names like “Bravery” and “Persistence” and come in rainbow colors rather than human ones. I love it when companies make that intentional choice; kids across racial difference can play imaginatively and aren’t stereotyped. IAmElemental’s delightful slogan “It’s time to play with power” makes me want the action figure set on my desk to literally play with power when power in the adult world remains elusive.
If last minute gift shopping for you means running to your local big box (and there’s no shame in that), then DC Super Hero Girls can help. Caveat: this girl superhero team should be more racially diverse than the few token girls of color. Where would we be without Doc McStuffins who truly helped to break a color barrier in toys? DC is trying to build a team of girl superheroes which is different and better than past one-off versions of Wonder Woman. She could save the world but alone without much of a girl gang or squad goals. And girls driving large flying machines is part of what makes the DC Super Hero Girls LEGO Batgirl Batjet Chase project appeal.
Free and Possible: Challenge your doll/barbie/figurine collection on its diversity, especially around race. Not everything has to be purchased new; building a more inclusive play figure collection can be thrifted or garage saled. Historically, there have been few to no girl action figures, but there are Barbies who can be re-outfitted to do the task, especially if you sew or even cut makeshift doll capes with scissors from leftover fabric scraps. Our house has re-outfitted many “Tianas,” the first “black princess” from The Princess and the Frog, who has her own team of superhero Tianas with capes. They are a mighty subversive force.
GIRLS DO SCIENCE
A recent breakthrough–chemistry, STEM, and science kits are now aimed at girls. My 6-year old got a Project MC2 Lip Balm Lab Kit she loves. You boil things and pour things and make something cool like chapstick (says the non-scientist).
While some derisively call this kind of STEM marketing targeted at girls, “sparkle science,” as a “maker mom” does on her Science blog, I’m not a purist. I take STEM where you meet it. If there is pink on a toy, glitter on packaging, it’s an entryway. Still, if making chapstick is not where you want to go, try Yellow Scope science kits, created by an inspirational pair of Momtrepreneurs to encourage girl love for science.confidence in science, before they fall off the curve. Research shows that girls learn best when they can approach projects in a creative and open-ended way. That’s why we designed our kits to engage both the scientific and creative minds of girls,” note Yellow Scope creators. Their chemistry kits are designed by women scientists with the goal of fostering girl science love and retaining that curiosity.
And if you’re not ready to turn your kitchen into a chemistry lab, try this award-winning book Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty. With its terrific rhyming and pictures featuring a girl of color scientist, the book makes us want to be like Ada Twist always curious and smart asking why, why, why?
Free and Possible: Take a look at Science Kids, a global science site with household projects using vinegar, lemon and more to blow stuff up–gently of course–or use invisible ink.
The last few years have seen girl building kits coming out of the independent toy market which pried open the gender toy divide and challenged limits we put on kids. Perhaps one of the most well known is GoldieBlox, a girl’s engineering toy and a company we have hosted at our Center and that I’ve written about previously. CEO and inventor, Debbie Sterling, “made it her mission in life to tackle the gender gap in STEM.” Goldieblox is a book series plus construction set for girls to solve problems through the story of Goldie, the girl inventor. Goldieblox designed parade floats are one of the best reasons to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For more diversity, check out Goldie’s comrades, like Ruby Rails, Li Gravity, and Valentina Voltz.
Roominate is also great for designing and building spaces and houses, circuits, and furniture. Snapping together a light circuit and creating new furniture is addictive. LEGO remains a favorite but they have lagged in their girl “minifigs” as we watch campaign after campaign challenge them on inclusivity. As the giant in the field, LEGO can do better because their product has been great through the ages (even if I still can’t break the blocks apart). Most of these items can be found at my favorite clearinghouse for strong girl gifts, A Mighty Girl, which collects nearly every great toy for girls that can be had.
Free and Possible: Cardboard, anyone? And lots of it.
BOYS PLAY WITH DOLLS
When Free To Be…You And Me came out in 1972, by Marlo Thomas and friends, it was revolutionary; hardly anything has replaced it in book/TV form to develop the whole child free of gender stereotypes. One of the beloved sections from the book is called, “William Wants A Doll” and it’s about well, William, and guess what–he wants a doll. Nobody else wants William to have a doll, but he persists. A few toy companies have made attempts over the years at dolls for boys.
Wonder Crew is finally doing it. In full disclosure, this is also a toy company I have written about and helped support because I believe in their mission. CEO and Creator, Laurel Wider, describes Wonder Crew as, “a line of Crewmates targeted to boys with the adventure of an action figure plus the emotional connection of a favorite stuffed animal.” Wonder Crew “Will” (an homage to William from Free To Be) is set to be re-released with a range of racial identities for every boy in your life.
Wider continues, “Studies show that strong relationships and the ability to connect emotionally are key to happiness, health and even career success. Yet toys that encourage friendship and empathy are largely marketed to girls – sending the message to many boys that this kind of play is not for them.” Wonder Crew is the mainstream attempt to say–hey, boys need the same skills that girls get through creative doll play.
Charlotte Zolotow’s terrific book, William’s Doll–yet another homage to “William Wants A Doll”–ends with William’s grandmother arguing with William’s father, her own son, about why William does, in fact, need a doll, “‘He needs it,’ she said ‘to hug and to cradle and to take to the park so that when he’s a father like you he’ll know how to take care of his baby and feed him and love him and bring him the things he wants, like a doll, so that he can practice being a father.’” Boys need dolls not just because they might one day be fathers, but because caring, empathy, and connection are qualities we all need to cultivate.
Free and Possible: Used dolls abound, simply put one in a boy’s arms.
BOYS READ QUIETLY
A favorite book of mine about not limiting boy gender expression is Tomi DePaola’s Oliver Button Is A Sissy. In it, DePaola writes, “Oliver Button was called a sissy. He didn’t like to do things that boys are supposed to do. Instead, he liked to walk in the woods and play jump rope. He liked to read books and draw pictures. He even liked to play with paper dolls.” Oliver sounds like a kid I’d like to hang with. By the end of the story, everyone mostly lets Oliver be Oliver–but we all know it’s hard to be Oliver.
Getting boys to read is not the only issue in broadening boy gender socialization. Jon Scieszka, a noted children’s book author, argues on his Guys Read website that when boys are “action oriented and competitive” it can sometimes hurt their ability to slow down and read. Research tells us that boys frequently struggle to read and that, in turn, affects every aspect of their future development: from getting low grades to developing a love of learning and the ability to succeed academically. According to U.S. News and World Report, when Renaissance Learning, a literacy tracking system data mined its over 10 million student users to track literacy progress from first through 12th grade, their 2013 study notes that girls read “more books than boys do, in every grade… Over the course of a child’s elementary, middle and high school education, that adds up to an almost 800,000-word difference.” Long-term meaning, there’s a “a strong connection between how much girls read and their higher scores on standardized reading tests” which is shorthand for engaged learning.
Boys should have the same chance to read, reflect, build worlds and not be called the homophobic “sissy” because of it. When bell hooks, social justice author and writer of 40 books, wrote her picture book, Be Boy Buzz, she wanted to depict a black boy who loves to sit quietly as much as he loves to do other things like run. While it seems obvious, it remains hard to find depictions of boys being quiet and reading as much as they are active.
Free and Possible: Modeling reading in any form is the trick. Libraries are the place to be.
BOYS DRESS UP
I am a particular fan of the picture book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino (ages 4-7) because it opens a conversation about gender, dress up, and imagination. Boys can dress up in the privacy of their home, but once they leave that space (and sometimes even in that space), we know what happens.
Books about boys transgressing gender norms must deal with the concomitant bullying (see Jacob’s New Dress and My Princess Boy for other examples). Once the protagonist Morris builds a spaceship because–um, he has a great imagination–it provides an opening for conversation with other boys who now connect with him over the spaceship and seem to be less hostile. There is a range of books about boys transgressing gender norms from boys who simply want to wear “girl” stuff because it’s cool to boys who are figuring out their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Without rigid gender norms, boys can embrace a more nuanced masculinity that is self-loving and prevents the kind of internalized shame that often gets turned outward to violence.
Free and Possible: Clothing swaps, ebay, and classifieds are great ways to expand the closet.
Hopefully, these ideas are inspiration for the immediate now (holidays!) and the future. If you find other liberatory toys the child in you and the child/s in your life love, let me know over at Psychology Today.
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