Children can grow up to be whatever they want to be. Girls and boys should play together. Socialise, run, climb, scoot, ride bikes. Why wouldn’t they? Sadly it is hard to find depictions on toy boxes, in catalogues or toy adverts that show girls and boys playing together no matter the toy that is inside. Do a simple search in Google of ‘girls toys’ and ‘boys toys’ and see what it looks like. The colour divide, the depiction on the outside of the box and of course the subject matter of the toy, all play a part in educating our children on what they ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be playing with. Which side of the coin they are. Which activities are for them. Aside from the fact that we tend to look for ‘people like us’ to indicate what we can and can’t do in this world we also know the pink/blue divided is instilled at a very young age (from birth) and it is often with this colour lens that our children navigate their early years. They take these cues, file them and use them to fit in with what ‘their’ group is doing, but parents and carers need to think about what this is teaching our children.
Do we want our little boys to be able to cook? Yes, of course. Would we like our girls to grow up knowing how to build things? Yes. Both of these are not simply useful skills for life but they are also broad enough to stretch children, their brains and their dexterity. Later they might decide they don’t enjoy cooking or DIY – we all know lots of adults who don’t both male and female – but if they don’t have the chance to try, how will they find out?
We know that children’s brains are learning all the time, sponge-like, sucking up all the information around them. Nature and nurture work hand in hand, Dr Debbie Ging and Dr Pádraig Murphy have found in their studies that “nurture and nature are not diametrically opposed but rather co-constitutive as nurture, the environment and the social change the brain over time.“1 Which is in line with the research by Professor Gina Rippon who shows that “stereo-types activate our inner-limiter”2 . Brains are incredibly malleable especially at a young age; infant sociological and neuroplasticity research tells us that “Toys have a substantial impact on the development of children’s cognitive and social skills, their perception of self and their career aspirations.“1 As well as this Lise Eliot, Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science has demonstrated how neuroplasticity (the adaptation of the brain to environment) is the primary factor in shaping children’s gender development. She also highlights that there is a serious “disconnect between how people think about gender equality in the workplace and how they think about it in relation to children’s play“3 , which is strange given that play is the primary way that children, especially young children, learn.
This isn’t just about girls and the limitations that are placed on them from a young age. If we want to create equality in the work place then we need girls to be playing with a broader range of toys and for toy manufacturers to stop reducing play for girls to hair, clothes, child care, cleaning and cooking; but we also need boys to be allowed to play with these toys as well. Permission is key here, boys are often restricted from toys and colours that they have an interest in because they are ‘girly’. We all know it is much easier for us (socially acceptable) to buy toys and clothes from the ‘boys’ section for our girls than it is to buy from the ‘girls’ section for our boys. But why should boys be restricted from playing with kitchens and hair? Aren’t the majority of our top chefs and hairdressers men? (A discussion that we can have another time!). Why aren’t little boys given the opportunity to learn these skills too?
Although adults often have a view that girls and boys are good at different things a study by Professor Jeffrey Trawick-Smith showed “toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented — construction toys and toy vehicles, for example — elicited the highest quality play among girls.”4 It is the adults that impose the restrictions for children by applying their learned stereo-types on children’s malleable brains.
We need to challenge the behaviour we illicit, the restrictions we place on our children and challenge those around us who always provide children toys that play to the stereotypes. The more choices we give children the more rounded view they will have of their (and others) abilities and then, hopefully, the gender divide in the world of work will change too. After all, if you watch children at the age of 3, 4 and 5 you can see just as many girls who are leaders as boys, and equally as many boys who are caring. If the split of skillsets is equal at this age, why does it change so dramatically in adults?
Imagine what the world would be like if those qualities were encouraged not challenged, maybe just maybe we would live in a more equal society.
2Professor Gina Rippon Gendering the Brain
Professor Jeffrey Trawick-Smith Professor of Early Childhood Education at the Center for Early Childhood Education, Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut