If Your Kid's Toy Box Is Looking A Bit Gendered, Here's What To Do Next

Here are some helpful (and relatively fuss-free) tips from early years experts on how to make a change.
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Children learn *so* much through play – but sometimes it can be all too easy to pigeonhole them with toys that reinforce certain stereotypes.

You might have a daughter who has about five dolls in her bedroom, but no dinosaurs, or perhaps you have a son who has a thousand cars, but not a doll in sight.

When you’re thinking about a billion other things – like, you know, keeping your kid fed, watered, alive and happy – carefully considering what they’re playing with can end up pretty low on the list of priorities. We know, we get it.

And quite often, as parents, we default back to what we played with when we were little. If you loved dolls and have fond memories of playing with them, you naturally want your kid to love dolls too.

To mark International Women’s Day (March 8), the child development app My First Five Years is calling on parents to help make their child’s play “about potential, not pigeonholing” – with early years experts sharing tips for helping to easily champion this at home.

Alistair Bryce-Clegg, one of the app’s co-founders and an early years expert, tells HuffPost UK: “Children are individuals with their own interests and preferred ways of playing, but we can inadvertently influence their preferred ways to play.

“The only expectations we want to give girls are that they can be brilliant women. How they are encouraged to play will shape what and who they aspire to be, so we want to make sure their play is about potential, not pigeonholing.”

Of course, this advice applies to parents of young boys, too. Especially as from a young age, all children are influenced by their environment.

Jennie Johnson, co-founder of My First Five Years, explains: “They notice that ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are two of the categories generally used to group people and begin to link characteristics to these categories based on what they notice in the world around them”.

They might also begin to make play choices based on their understanding of these cultural stereotypes and how they fit into these categories, she adds.

So how can you avoid pigeonholing your child when playing at home? Here are some helpful, fuss-free tips for getting started.

1. Allow them to choose what they play with

This might sound obvious but when encouraging play, stop yourself from saying things like: “Why don’t we play with the bricks?” and instead, opt for open-ended sentences such as: “What would you like to play with today?”

By doing this, it encourages children to think more critically about what they enjoy playing with and stops us from forcing any biases about what we might want to play with, say early years experts.

You can further encourage this by having their toys available at their level so they can easily pick and choose what they want to play with.

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2. Have a toy audit

During your next sort out, it’s worth looking at your child’s toys with a critical eye. For example, do they have a lot of toys that are a certain colour? Or do they have lots of toys that steer them towards playing in a certain way? Are there toys that you wanted as a child, so you’ve brought them for your child? Do the toys lean towards a particular gender?

Challenging what you’ve got can help you to sort through what you don’t need anymore, and what you might think about purchasing in the future. Then, if a birthday is coming up, you can subtly hint to relatives and friends what your child might benefit from.

3. Engage in their play (when invited)

Something we’re all guilty of at one point or other is hijacking a child’s play. While it’s always with the best of intentions, experts suggest that, sometimes, watching and not getting involved is OK too.

If your child invites you into their play, then get involved, but try not to lead their play too much, they suggest. By doing this you will notice more about what they know, what they enjoy and how they prefer to play. It will also stop you from influencing their play with any of your own preferred ways to play.

4. Think about using open-ended toys

Open-ended toys are simply those that can be played with in a variety of ways. So, for example, wooden blocks, and recycling items such as tubes, tubs, boxes and other materials.

Open-ended toys are not only brilliant for encouraging your child to be creative and think critically about how to use the object in front of them, but they are also free from gender stereotypes. Plus, a quick raid of your recycling box is far cheaper than a trip to the toy shop.

5. Challenge stereotypes in play

When your child is playing, think about the language you use and the words they choose to use, recommend the experts. For example, would you say the same phrases if you were talking to a child of the opposite sex? Are there books you have that suggest boys shouldn’t cry, or that girls can’t take risks? If so, then call it out while you’re with them.

Modelling to your child that stereotypes are all around you is a great way to encourage them to be mindful of it in the future. At the same time you can reinforce character attributes like strength, resilience, kindness and perseverance with children during their play.

6. Play in different ways

All children benefit from having time to be quiet and time to enjoy rough and tumble. But do you allow your child to play and explore in these different ways? Or do you lean towards one type of play.

There might be times when you could encourage your child to take more risks in their play, or explore the outdoors, or make more mess. Equally there might also be times when you could encourage downtime, mindfulness and relaxation.

Having a range of ways in which you play will help your child hone in on what they really enjoy – rather than focusing on a way of playing that you expect them to enjoy.

7. Embrace your perfectly unique child

Your child is wonderfully individual and what they enjoy playing with and how they play will be completely different to other children.

The team at My First Five Years concludes: ”By being responsive and reflective parents, we can follow their lead and encourage them to be a perfectly unique adult of the future.”