Talking about toys: Taking child’s play seriously

On occasion, people ask me why I bother taking children’s toys so seriously. “They’re just toys, after all!”

Yes, toys are just toys–but they’re so much more than that, too. Toys are a central part of children’s play, and to a child, play is very important work. Through play, children experiment with their visions for themselves and others in the world; play is part of their learning and socialization.

So, it’s worth talking seriously about toys, for they have the power to shape children’s dreams and worldviews.

Plus, as the infographic below from Frugal Dad explains, toy sales are big, big business. Family spending on toys went up during the recession, even as families’ grocery spending declined. The major manufacturers, Mattel and Hasbro, are aggressive marketers; when marketers harness children’s “pester power” so skillfully, it’s hard to resist the temptation to buy new toys.


Source: Used with permission.

It’s also worth remembering that if two manufacturers monopolize 40% of the toy industry, and aggressively market their goods, their worldviews can wind up permeating our homes. You know all the recent complaints about sexism in children’s toys? Take a look at who composes the boards of directors at Hasbro and Mattel.

Oh, and while you’re at it, check out the board of directors at LEGO and the executive team from Disney’s consumer products division, too.

See any trends?

If you said, “Wow, it’s mostly white men,” then we’re on the same page. If the people in charge lack racial diversity and skew heavily towards men, that has implications for the kinds of toys the major manufacturers will produce: dynamic, engaging toys for boys, and stereotypical, reductionist toys for girls–and poor representation of people of color, too.

Readers: What do you think? How seriously do you take toys? Parents, do you have any strategies for deciding which toys you deem fit to enter your homes?

9 Comments on “Talking about toys: Taking child’s play seriously

  1. Toys are about play and play is about imagination; about fantasy and of role play – the chance to inhabit an imagined space from the inside. The toys we give our children prepare them for the roles and identities they might aspire to. Neuro-cognitive science is also showing us that the wiring of the brain is influenced by early interactions and learning. There was a time when girls were being encouraged to think outside the girl-box, to become lorry drivers, road diggers, scientists. That was back in the 1980’s though and having been through that and then having worked in education in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it felt as though we started suffering a backlash against that 1980’s feminism. What troubles me is that in western culture it is predominantly women who raise children – mothers still have the dominant role in child care, teaching is predominantly a female occupation, especially in the early years. And yet somehow inequality between the sexes remains deeply entrenched and any gender non-conformity within the school community is met with intolerance – particularly males who don’t perform sufficient masculinity: femaleness is lesser, a trade down. (look at the furore over the J Crew advert where the mother painted the toe-nails of her son; the mother who was villified for allowing her son to go the fancy dress party as Daphne from Scooby-Doo).

    Sadly there seems to be a return to the gender binarism and hetero-normativity of the 1970’s. In 2011 we see Dora the explorer -the classic action tom-boy is now reduced to making cake in the kitchen – how did that happen? Why don’t we see “Bob the builder cake baking sets” for boys to help mum doing some cake baking? The problem is perhaps, not just that we have men in charge of the media; the toy manufacturers; the toy shops: but we have women who collude with the gender differentiation, who collude to ensure their children are “normal and normalised” within a cultural zeitgeist that is invested in propagating gender divisions based on anatomy and not on a division of latent skills and attributes. Even today I still hear female clients using the phrase “the man of the house” (whether talking about a partner or more worryingly an eldest son) in a continued unquestioning acknowledgement of the implicit hierarchy of male over female. How did that happen – how is it that we failed to fully inculcate the notion of equality? How is it that so few women (looking across the broader spectrum of society) have embraced the ideals of feminism, the notion that we could promote equality between the sexes, when it should surely be a no-brainer?

    And do we need to question, if this have something to do with anxieties about their boys failing to become “proper men”? Anyone know where I can buy a Bob the builder cake-baking kitchen set?

    @grrlAlex – transgender social activist.

  2. What an interesting post!
    I would guess that we spend more than $280/year on toys for our preschool daughter. For me, especially in these early years, it has been a learning process. She REALLY does love playing with a big box more than almost anything. We buy puzzles and a ton of art supplies, a play kitchen and a rocket ship bos, legos, a dinosaur/dool house, a few hockey sticks and a soccer ball and yes, some Disney stuff: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Lightning McQueen and Buzz Lightyear (which she wanted so desperately she gave up sucking her thumb for him). Her current treasure is (gulp) a pair of plastic gold high heels, handed down from an older cousin, apparently from the (shudder) Bratz line. She calls them her ruby slippers because she is currently enthralled with The Wizard of Oz; in the past they have been Cinderella’s glass slippers.
    There are days I feel like I should have bought her some zhou zhou pets and days when I cannot believe how many toys we have in our house — so many “special” things that nothing can really be that special. Generally, I am ok with it though — she learns through play. She is contantly using her imagination and creativity.
    It makes sense to me that the preschool years are when parents spend the most on toys. When she is older, she will be spending more time outside of the house and will have other ways of learning. Right now, play is the thing.
    My main strategy, if it can be called that, is to avoid commercials. Neither she nor I really know much about the toys out there. I shop online, so there are fewer impulse purchases and there is no need to bring her into the toy store with me. I try to avoid toys with a lot of electronic bells and whistles, like the once coveted Buzz Lightyear that hardly sees the light of day anymore. She would rather put on her astronaut costume, climb aboard her rocketship (box) and pretend that she is Buzz.

  3. Pingback: Why take toys seriously? « Childhood and Youth Studies

  4. Pingback: Katniss vs Merida: Mattel’s doll versions of strong girl characters | Rebecca Hains

  5. Rebecca, I was sent to you by a mutual friend, Melissa who thought of you during my latest go ’round with LEGO customer service over a comment I sent them about their gendered marketing in the local LEGO store. She thought you might be interested in hearing about it. Send me an email if you are.

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