“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them to feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit” – Fred Rogers.
My son has a toy doll and I’m ok with it. So, why aren’t you? Toby asked for a baby doll for his second birthday. It was decided that his grandma was going to buy it for him, we chose the My First Baby Annabel’s Brother. It was the best of a bad bunch; the selection of gender neutral dolls was appalling. He came with a blue baby-grow (obviously, because baby boy’s only wear blue and baby girls only wear pink of course.) a bottle and a bib. We also got him a pram to push his baby around in. He instantly loved his baby doll and has played with it every day since. He named him ‘Baby George’ and he comes everywhere with us. The park, preschool, the supermarket. But no matter where it is that we go with Baby George and his pram, we will always get funny looks and laughs from passers-by. Mocking comments from friends/family “oh where’s your doll today Toby?” and I don’t get it. What is it exactly that offends you so much? Nobody bats an eyelid seeing a dad walk down the high-street with a pram, so why does so much biases with toys still exist?
The diversion in toy stores is still ridiculously apparent. You either go down the trucks, tools and wrestlers isle or the dolls and barbies. Some stores are even labelled into gender-specific aisles or sections. But, what about if your child enjoys playing with both? The division does nothing but give the child a complex. So much so, that recently I’ve heard a few comments from the horse’s mouth along the lines of “you can’t play with this, because you’re a girl”. I can only imagine he is picking up on what he hears from others or what is constantly thrown at him by society, because it’s certainly not an opinion of mine. Of course, I reassure him that toys are for everybody. (After I’ve finished calling him a sexist arsehole and playing who run the world by Beyoncé on repeat). I understand not everybody shares my views, but I can’t help feeling riled by the fact other people’s views are affecting his decisions and thoughts. Why can toys not just be toys. “Boys toys” are often marketed to promote aggression and competition (I’m sure all other boy mama’s will agree with me, this comes very naturally and needs no encouragement!) and “girls toys” are marketed in promotion of nurturing and relationship building. But don’t we all need all these qualities regardless of gender to become a well-rounded adult? Girls need to be taught to be strong and independent and have the freedom to explore their interests, whether that be dolls or dumper trucks. And as for boys, (I know mine in particular) are so emotional. They also need to learn to feel confident and comfortable expressing their emotions, they need to learn to feel compassion and empathy and what is so damaging about teaching them to care? Play is so important in encouraging them to learn, build confidence and important life skills that restricting or categorising any aspect of play completely defies all logic.
I do think that due to more and more people raising children with a positive feminist viewpoint and the rise of women in typically male careers that there has been movement in the “girls toys” section. You can now buy pink Lego and all typically male cartoons these days will always feature a girl character who is just as ballsy and brave as her fellow male companions. And rightly so. But I can’t help but notice the movement in “boys toys” is still lacking. No matter how many variations and colour choices of certain toys are produced there are still too many people who feel uncomfortable seeing a little boy with a baby doll in a pram. The same as they do seeing a little boy dressed in a princess costume. Toby enjoys playing with his cars and tools just as much as he does his doll and his toy kitchen. I might not be able to change the biased opinion of many, I can’t force people to be comfortable with something that they’re not, I can only make sure that Toby knows my views are neutral, allow him to express his creativity in any which way he desires and make sure he see’s that I do not agree with the mainstream message of gender stereotyping.
Below I have listed some of our favourite gender-neutral toys that we enjoy playing with. I tend to opt for toys that are open-ended, that he can use his imagination to use in multiple different ways and have longevity. As I mentioned he has played with his baby doll and toy kitchen for years and they are still his favourite’s, but these are some of the other things we have and enjoy.
Of course, at the top of the list. A baby doll, as I mentioned above the only real options in stores are a blue or pink doll, but what we do is have a small box of old baby clothes for ‘Baby George’ or if you don’t have any saved, get some really cheap new-born clothes from a charity shop or supermarket that way they can change them into whatever they want to. Toby will spend hours getting his doll undressed and dressed again into different outfits.
Ikea Duktig Play Kitchen – we have the metal baking set, utensils and cookware set to go with this. When I was looking for a kitchen for Toby, again I struggled to find one that wasn’t either pink or blue until I came across the Ikea one. He has had this for years and plays with it every-day with his Melissa and Doug Wooden food. He makes meals for us, he creates tea-parties and birthday parties for his toys. And the best bit it completely fits in with my décor.
Wooden Dolls House, these are great for imaginative play. We actually got our (Viga Wooden Dollhouse Villa) from a car-boot sale and it was the best tenner I’ve ever spent. Again, this took me a really long time to find something that wasn’t obviously feminine. I still haven’t found any on the high-street, but I do know that Scandiborn do a beautiful wooden one. It’s quite an investment but I can guarantee you would get your money’s worth.
Animal/Dinosaur Figurines – you can get these pretty much any-where but our favourites are by Schleich, in comparison to some of the cheap ones you can get your hands on they really stand the test of time. There is no end for the amounts of things you can do with these. Bath play, sensory bins, imaginary play, sorting into categories the list is endless. They are also a really good thing to take on days out and travelling. I always have a tiger or two shoved in my handbag!
A Doctors Kit – again there are so many variations on these that you can get. Our favourite is the My First Doctor’s Kit from Wooden Toy Shop. (You may have gathered I much prefer wooden toys over plastic). Toby received this doctor’s kit one Christmas when he was around 18 months, it’s used tirelessly over and over again on us, grandparents, his toys, the dog, you name it.
Wooden Building Blocks – These have to be my favourite. We have the Brio 50 Piece Building Block Set and a couple of Giant Jenga sets. They’re so versatile, he plays with them in a different way every time. Sometimes he builds towers and bashes them back down, other times he will spend ages laying them out specifically, counting them rearranging them, he will use them to build houses/castles/garages or various other things for his figurines and cars. And they stand the test of time.
Dressing Up Box – My sister and her partner put together a dressing up box for Toby as a gift last Christmas. It can be easy to stereotype dressing up boxes if you stick to what is available in the local toy-shops. For boys they offer superhero’s or builders and for girls’ princess’, there’s no in between. Don’t get me wrong he does have a couple of super-hero costumes, but he also has a wand and tiara, its all about balance and exploration. What I’ve found works best for imaginative play is loose parts they can create in to multiple characters and be whoever they want to be. You can get some great things from Amazon and also from fancy dress shops. Think anything from wigs, to hats, to wings, to glasses. And another bonus you can always dig something out for those impromptu dress up days nurseries and schools like to spring on us! This is always the first box to be pulled out if he has friends round.
I hope these ideas are helpful and encourage you to allow your child or children to fully express themselves in wherever their interests lie. So next time your son’s Christmas list includes a Barbie, or your daughter’s birthday wish is for a WWE Wrestler, embrace it. Forget about the opinions of others, you do you. And more importantly, let them do them. We can’t single-handedly change the mainstream message, but we can redefine the meaning for our own children. And just maybe the woman who sniggered in the street at my son’s toy pram won’t be so shocked the next time she sees it, and maybe the time after that even less, until she sees little boys everywhere doing what little boy’s do best and playing, imagining and exploring and just maybe eventually she will learn to completely mind her own business.