Children’s Toys & Gender Roles: How Altered Messaging Can Bring Down Stereotypes

KENT, United Kingdom — As gender norms continues to shift, so do the toys that young girls and boys play with most often. More young girls than ever are picking up toy cars and building blocks, while boys are increasingly willing to incorporate dolls into playtime. New research shows it’s more possible than ever to start integrating boys and girls into the same play activities, but it will take strong messaging and encouragement from popular children’s magazines.

Researchers at the University of Kent believe that periodicals aimed at kids have a unique opportunity to break down the common gender roles enforced on boys and girls from birth. Lauren Spinner, the study’s lead author, specifically believes that if magazines can add more diverse photographs and articles, they could challenge and disrupt the long-held traditions of gender norms that many children haven’t felt comfortable following.

Child holding purple pony toy
New research shows it’s more possible than ever to start integrating boys and girls into the same play activities, but it will take strong messaging and encouragement from popular children’s magazines.

Spinner and her team studied 82 British boys and girls between ages four and seven. They split the children into two groups. One group was shown pictures of a boy playing with a car and a girl playing with a toy pony. The other group was shown images of the opposite: the boy playing with the toy pony, the girl with the car. After viewing these images, the children were asked who they thought should play with a selection of toys the researchers brought out for them. They were also asked which children from the photographs they most wanted to play with.

The group exposed to the counter-stereotypical photos were more flexible in who they thought should play with each toy and more readily chose a playmate of the opposite sex. The authors found this to be a telling measurement of the influence children’s magazines could have on easing traditional norms.

“Regular exposure to counter-stereotypic content in the media could be an effective strategy to promote gender flexibility and combat gender-related bullying,” Spinner says in a statement. “Presenting children with images of counter-stereotypic peers through magazines could be used to encourage children to play with a variety of toys, play in mixed-gender groups, and reduce gender-based social exclusion and bullying for both gender-typical and gender-atypical children.”

The authors say the research shows that beliefs claiming children inevitably are drawn to gender-specific toys are incorrect. They believe more educators and parents should consider the media children are viewing in order to help make them feel more comfortable with non-traditional toys and playgroups.

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Still, Spinner concedes her findings are the result of single cross-sectional study. “The experimental design is a strength,” says Spinner, “But we only included one dose of the exposure, and the results need to be replicated.”

The full study was published in the journal Sex Roles.

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