Toys are more than entertainment for children. They serve as some of the earliest developmental tools, teaching cognitive and academic skills while helping shape what children know about the world and themselves, says Lisa Dinella ’98.
Dinella, the principal investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory and director of Gender Studies at Monmouth University, has made a career out of researching the complex relationship between gender, childhood, and toys. She visited TCNJ to share her research, “No girls’ toys, no boys’ toys! The benefit of decreasing stereotypes in kids’ toys and media.”
“We see blocks, puzzles, and many board games being connected to children learning mental rotation skills, spatial abilities, and counting and number recognition,” she says. “But toys also teach children expectations for social roles, so gender stereotypes in toys and media are areas for concern.”
Gender stereotyping toys can be as simple as an object being blue for boys and pink for girls, or as subliminal as featuring pop culture characters in the design of the game to entice a certain audience.
“We want children to follow their passions based on their interests and skills, not because social rules are narrowing their opportunities based on gender,” Dinella says. “Children are really savvy in that they quickly learn what people think is ‘for girls’ versus ‘for boys.’”
Gender development research shows that once children learn these rules, they tend to follow them. Dinella argues that gender stereotypes should be left out of toys and media so that all kids can feel comfortable playing with and learning from all toys.
To enact change at the highest level, Dinella serves as a consultant to toy companies to offer best practices in limiting or eliminating gender stereotypes. Her research specifically examines the correlation between a toy’s color and the corresponding play behavior.
“Most toy companies are committed to making children’s lives more joyful,” she says. “The benefit of removing these labels is that children would have more toys to play with, and thus can learn more lessons and have more fun.”
Dinella’s goal is to raise awareness of the potential harm that gender stereotyping toys puts upon the early childhood population. She hopes to eventually see toys return to their original purpose: instruments of fun.
“Research shows that children change their likes, dislikes and play behaviors based on the gender rules they think are associated with toys,” she says. “Toys being marketed as ‘boy toys’ or ‘girl toys’ reduces the likelihood that all kids will play with that toy. There is no such thing as boys’ toys or girls’ toys, just toys and kids.”
— David Pavlak