California's Getting Gender Neutral Toy Aisles. Should The UK Follow?

Big toy stores in California will soon receive a fine if they don't have a gender neutral section.

Gender neutral toy aisles will soon become mandatory in large Californian toy stores, in a new law that’s the first of its kind in America.

The law will come into effect in 2024 and doesn’t ban sections for boys and girls in stores. However, it stipulates that any retailers with 500 or more employees across their California stores should also include a gender neutral section in stores. Failure to comply will result in fines of up to $500 (£368) per offence.

“The segregation of toys by a social construct of what is appropriate for which gender is the antithesis of modern thinking,” democrat assemblyman Evan Low, one of the law’s co-authors, said in a statement.

But should toy stores follow suit in the UK? Some large retailers have already made the switch, without a specific law here.

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Toys R Us, for example, ditched the “boys” and “girls” categories on its website back in 2015. Instead, it now themes products by age group or interest, such as “arts and crafts” or “building sets and blocks”.

The change is likely to be popular with over half of parents. According to 2019 research by the Fawcett Society, six in 10 parents worry about gender stereotyping when it comes to shopping for their kids.

Psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo thinks grouping toys in a non-gendered way is a good idea, but isn’t sure if the Californian law goes far enough. “If you still have aisles for specific genders in addition to gender neutral, then will this address this issue?” she asks.

Playing with certain toys can help with child development, she says, so no child should be dissuaded from them.

“Some of the benefits of playing with toys can be both cognitive and physical, such as enhancing the development of fine and gross motor skills, problem solving abilities, developing imagination and creativity, learning to share and interact with others, enhancing independence and autonomy and overall self-esteem,” Dr Quinn-Cirillo tells HuffPost UK.

“Children aren’t born with the concept of toys that are suitable for their gender. That is something imposed by society as a whole. The all too familiar pink and blue colouring of certain toys is a god example of this.”

Research has shown that certain toys are associated with gender stereotypes, such as fighting, aggression and excitement in boys, versus appearance, nurturing and domestic skills in girls, she says. “Overall, strongly gender stereotyped toys have been found to be less supportive of overall development.”

While gender neutral aisles in all UK toy stores might be a good place to start, Dr Quinn-Cirillo believes retailers should go further to ensure their toys are not designed with stereotypes in mind. “I recall when my son was young that toy push chairs and toy kitchen items were usually pink, which implied that these were orientated towards girls,” she says.

“We need to look at creating a more core shift in how toys are presented to children, ie removing the colour association and branding stereotypes, such a boys for diggers.”

If shops and branding are neutral, children will gravitate towards items they’re truly interested in, rather than items they’ve learned they are “expected” to enjoy.

“It is important that we don’t foster of culture of ‘expectations’ on our children through toys, ie that girls should be one thing and boys another,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo.

“We do also need to be prepared for the fact that introducing new concepts will take time as we are tackling long established behaviour and norms. It is important to reiterate why this is an important area to address when making change.”

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