Sunday, December 22, 2013

Take it from children's museums- these toys are for everyone

Around this time of year the discussion about girl toys vs. boy toys gets particularly lively. Most of us who are concerned about the strict gendering of toys are in agreement: the way toys are designed and marketed is sexist and harmful to children. But all too often these discussions take a turn away from discussing the limitations this puts on children and starts maligning toys meant for girls and upholding boy toys as somehow better.

I’d like to argue for a more inclusive way of talking about toys. Instead of using the word “girly” as a synonym for “dopey” or “frivolous” or referring to “playing with dolls” in a dismissive way, let’s recognize the value of “girl” and “boy” toys. To say that playing with dolls is not as important as playing with blocks, we are creating a hierarchy of play and sending children the message that some interests are better than others.

And it has implications on the professions that grow out of these interests- it’s no secret that the salaries in the male-dominated engineering (building stuff) field are much higher than the salaries in the female-dominated teaching (communicating and taking care of people) field.

Here are three toys that are generally thought of as being for girls and why they are not to be dismissed. In fact these toys are so important that children’s museums include them in their exhibits, and though I’m completely biased, I happen to think that’s a great metric for evaluating a play experience.

1. Baby Dolls
A boy and girl with baby dolls at the Iowa Children's Museum 
Photo by Jody Landers.
These are some of the best dolls you can get. Unlike fashion dolls, they are realistic and often anatomically correct and their skin comes in a variety of colors. In their day-to-day lives, children are completely dependent on grownups and it can be extremely rewarding to flip things and become someone who takes care of someone else for a change. And children know just what to do. They rock the baby in their arms, sing to it, feed it, and change its diapers. When children imagine the feelings and needs of others, they are building empathy skills and those will serve them well regardless of whether they want to become parents themselves one day.

2. Dollhouses 
Historic dollhouse on display at Boston Children's Museum.
Dollhouses make a child’s familiar world small and easy to manipulate. The scale gives children control over things they have no control over in real life and allows them to act out scenarios between characters. Storytelling and dialogue are ways that children learn valuable communication and interpersonal skills. When two or more children play together with a dollhouse, the negotiation skills they develop are valuable too.

3. Play Kitchens
The Rainbow Market at Children's Discovery Museum of 
San Jose features a play kitchen with child-sized appliances.
In a world where counters are hard to reach, a scaled-down anything is exciting and kitchens are no exception. Real kitchens are not particularly child-friendly places to play, but they are a central part of daily life in a society that eats three times a day. When there is nothing to mash or stir, children often need to be shooed out of kitchens for their own safety. Play kitchens give children a safe opportunity to emulate grownups independently and begin to develop healthy personal relationships with food, eating, and cooking.