Thinking Outside the Gender Toy Box (or Not)

Thinking Outside the Gender Toy Box (or Not)

Carrie McBride
Mar 14, 2011

Before I had my son I had been intellectually camping out (in my Airstream trailer, natch) in the nurture campgrounds of the 'nature vs. nurture debate'. I didn't plan to be pushy about it, but I wanted to provide toys for him all along the spectrum regardless of which gender category they traditionally fell in. And, I assumed, at his tender age of 2.5, before exposure to television commercials and peer pressure, he'd be equally interested in the felt play food I painstakingly made for him as Tonka trucks. Um, no.

Despite my attempts to think outside the gender toy box he inevitably gravitates toward diggers, dumpers, dinosaurs and other traditional "boy toys." Which is fine, but it has forced me to reevaluate some of my ideas and wonder if the folks in the nature camp have marshmallows I could borrow.

In addition to trawling the aisles of Toy Fair last month looking for great new toys to share with you, I sat in on an interesting presentation by toy industry expert Richard Gottlieb about gender and toys. He presented the results of a recent survey of 1,500 parents (98% moms) that explored attitudes about gender and toys. He started the lively presentation with some vintage toy packaging showing boys (and often, fathers) actively playing with a toy while girls (and often, mothers) passively watched them with dopey, adoring looks on their faces.

While modern packaging (with notable exceptions) generally does a better job of showing both boys and girls actively engaged with all kinds of toys, there were some results of the survey I found really interesting:

The kinds of toys moms report that their children play (or, more importantly, don't play with) still fall into pretty traditional gender categories:

• 15% reported their son plays with dolls
• 20% reported their son plays dress up
• 41% reported their son plays with kitchen toys
• 60% reported their son plays with plush animals

Moms believe their daughters play less with "boy toys" than they did themselves when they were young.

• 16% reported their daughter plays with toy guns (compared to 25% self)
• 27% reported their daughter plays with construction toys (compared to 34% self)
• 24% reported their daughter plays with action figures (compared to 45% self)
• 32% reported their daughter plays with cars and trucks (compared to 39% self)
• 33% reported their daughter plays with science kits (compared to 34% self)

Do parents believe toys influence their children's future careers?

• 97% of respondents believe that playing with math and science toys can improve a child's educational success
• Yet 62% felt that the toys their children played with did not influence their future career choices and even more, 78%, felt toys did not influence future earning potential.
• 73% felt there was an absence of math/science toys available for girls (they clearly hadn't seen these chemistry perfume kits)

Toys and Sexual Preference: Is William Getting His Doll or Not?

• 91% of parents surveyed did not believe the toys their kids played influenced sexual preference
• However, 20% believed their spouse (husbands in this case) did not want their sons to play with dolls

Does color matter to kids? And, if not, why aren't marketers getting the message?

• 55% of parents did not believe their daughters preferred to play with pink toys
• 77% of parents did not believe their sons preferred to play with blue toys

(I wish they'd asked the question of whether their sons (or daughters for that matter) preferred not to play with pink toys.)

How do parents decide what toys to buy and what do they look for in a toy?

From most important to least, these are the influencing factors parents reported when deciding what to buy:

1. the child's wish
2. another parent's recommendation
3. a blogger recommendation
4. newspaper/magazine article, television spotlight
5. advertising
6. in-store demo
7. store placement

What do parents look for?

1. Fun
2. Educational value
3. Quality
4. Price
5. Brand
6. Eco-friendly

Reading the results of this survey I didn't feel like they were reflective of the parents I know or, for that matter, the readers I interact with on Ohdeedoh. And, there are many factors here that the survey couldn't suss out - how old are these kids? Is playing Medieval knights "dress up?" Are these parents being totally honest? Do parents really know what their kids think about toys? Does parental peer pressure play a role in what toys parents buy or don't buy for their kids? Nevertheless, all this is interesting to think about. Mostly I hope that toy companies realize that many, many parents specifically seek out toys that aren't pink or blue (ever tried to buy a doll umbrella stroller in another color?). If the vast majority of toys marketed toward girls are pink, isn't it just a self-fulfilling prophecy that girls will play with pink toys?

You can find out more about Richard Gottleib at his consultancy company USA Toy Experts and read his blog posts about all kinds of toy industry topics on Global Toy News.

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