Toys for all: expanding opportunities for development

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Imagine that you want to buy a toy for a child. You get into a toy store and a toy store employee asks if they can help you. What information would you provide in order to find the best toy within the planned budget? Child’s age, interests… and probably their gender?

Play is vital for children as it fosters their cognitive, emotional, and social development. It also allows them to explore their imagination and interpersonal relationships and it shapes their interests and attitudes. However, many toys are considered suitable either only for boys or only for girls. Toys stores are frequently divided into boys and girls sections, while advertising of toys often specifically targets boys or girls.

These beliefs that certain toys are appropriate just for one gender, usually referred to as gender stereotypes about toys, can limit children’s exposure to diverse experiences and consequently have negative consequences for their development. Studies from different disciplines provide evidence for the impact of gendered toys play on neurological, cognitive and social development in children.

From the neurological perspective, some authors argue that gender stereotypes in toys can limit children’s exposure to varied and complex stimuli, which can affect brain development. The development of the human brain is a very long and complex process that starts in the first gestational trimester and continues up until adulthood. As a result of neuroplasticity, which is a fundamental property of the nervous system that allows it to continuously learn and adapt, the human brain has the ability to change throughout an individual’s life. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reorganize neural connections in response to new experiences, learning, and environmental changes, or to modify its structure and function, forming new neural pathways or strengthening existing ones. This can lead to improvements in cognitive abilities, behavior, and emotional regulation. 

Early experiences have a significant impact on a young brain’s potential development and skills. According to some authors, synapses which are the connections between neurons, are highly influenced by children’s and adolescents’ experiences and environments. Noteworthy, specific experiences in early development seem to be critical for proper wiring of the brain. For example, children who face vision-related challenges and are deprived from clear vision can lose depth perception and fine acuity forever if the issue is not resolved by the age of two. Similarly, it is assumed that specific experiences within the critical periods are necessary for the proper development of other sensory, motor, cognitive, social and emotional abilities.

A professor of neuroscience Lise Eliot argues that toy play activates all parts of the nervous system: sensory circuits, like vision, hearing, touch, vestibular sensations (e.g. balance and movement); motor circuits; and cognitive circuits, like processing spatial-mechanical awareness (e.g. mentally navigating the physical space around us and manipulating objects in that space), cause-and-effect relationship, understanding, memory, attention, and sociolinguistic understanding. Through playing with different toys, boys and girls have different types of sensory stimulation, physical activity, cognitive, social and emotional engagement, and therefore different opportunities for development. Cumulative effect of these different exposures, through hundreds of hours of playing with different toys, can result in differences in development of certain skills, as well as in later differences in interests and aspirations.

Boys are usually encouraged to play with toys that emphasize movement and spatial skills, while girls are often encouraged to play with toys that emphasize nurturing and social skills. For instance, one study documented differences in playing with construction toys, which seem to be much more often purchased for boys than for girls. Considering that they foster development of mental rotation and spatial visualization, these gender differences in toy play could provide boys and girls with different opportunities for developing these skills and set them off to different developmental pathways from early childhood.

Thus, some authors propose that gender-neutral toy play could promote cognitive development by providing children with more diverse and cognitively rich experiences. Different types of toys and play and a wide range of interesting and challenging activities could also be developmentally beneficial for physical, social and emotional development.

Furthermore, in the light of research findings that identical toys are used differently by boys and girls, some authors warn that just equipping children with gender-neutral or counter-stereotypical toys might not be enough. It could be helpful to inspire children in their play and encourage them to explore different styles of it.

On the other hand, encouraging children into atypical activities with the toys typical for their gender could also be a way for broadening opportunities for development. For example, Liben et al. (2018) propose that a jewelry-making toy play could be turned into an activity of designing new styles, figuring out sequences of wire bends and bead placement from a photograph or drawing, or even following diagrams of step-by-step sequences, drawn from varying points and in varying spatial projections.  

Overall, although more research is needed to better understand links between gendered toy play and neurological as well as cognitive development, the current evidence suggests that expanding opportunities and providing children with diverse and varied play experiences can promote a broad range of skills and abilities. Therefore, next time you’re choosing a toy for a child, think twice before you make a decision based on the child’s gender.

Suggested Readings

de Graaf-Peters, V. B., & Hadders-Algra, M. (2006). Ontogeny of the human central nervous system: What is happening when? Early Human Development, 82, 257–266.

Eliot, L. (2018). Impact of gender-typed toys on children’s neurological development. In Gender typing of children’s toys: How early play experiences impact development. (pp. 167-187). American Psychological Association.

Huttenlocher, P. R ., & Dabholkar, A. S . (1997). Regional differences in synaptogenesis in human cerebral cortex. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 387, 167–178.<167::AID-CNE1>3.0.CO;2-Z

Liben, L. S., Schroeder, K. M., Borriello, G. A., & Weisgram, E. S. (2018). Cognitive consequences of gendered toy play. In Gender typing of children’s toys: How early play experiences impact development. (pp. 213-255). American Psychological Association.

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