Let Toys Be Toys

Posted by iChild, September 27, 2017 10:26 AM

By Let Toys Be Toys

Five years ago, in 2012, a group of parents, frustrated by the increase in gender-based marketing to children, set up Let Toys Be Toys. Since then, 14 retailers and 10 publishers have removed gendered signs and labels from books and toy aisles. Let Toys Be Toys continues to challenge gender stereotypes in childhood, and here explains why it matters and what you can do in the early years to ensure all children have a wide range of experiences.


From the very start of life children are exposed to gender stereotypes: from the comments of adults around them, the toys they play with, the clothes they are dressed in and the images they see on television and in shops. Much of this may be unconscious bias and ‘innocent socialisation’ by well-meaning adults, but it’s still there and has an effect.

Parents and practitioners can find it a challenge to ensure that all children have opportunities to develop fully, without their gender holding them back. The Early Years Foundation Stage is the framework that everyone working with children from birth to the end of Reception year (in England) has to work to. By law, early years practitioners must provide ‘equality of opportunity’. This means many things, but one part of it is to encourage children to play with whatever interests them. This approach of teaching from the child’s interest is the cornerstone of early years education today.

Why does it matter?

Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. As early years practitioners know, play matters: children need a wide range of play to develop different skills. Toy signs and the stereotypes they communicate limit children's choices, affecting their self-image and self-esteem, and limiting their expectations.

Marketing and signage that is heavily gendered is telling children that they don’t have a choice and have to follow the rules. Often children do like to follow rules, especially in the preschool and early primary years, and they can sometimes feel as though they are committing a social transgression if they make a choice which is different from what the signs are telling them. Parents may also find that children encounter ‘gender policing’ from other children [‘that’s for boys/girls!’], some other parents and occasionally staff in early years settings or schools. They also absorb messages from media and society as to what is the ‘right’ way to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, or what occupations and activities might be suitable for them.


More alike than different

From Let Toys Be Toys’ extensive reading and discussion with early childhood experts, we have established that neuroscientists, psychologists and educationalists all agree that boys and girls are much more alike than different. Unintentional ‘innocent socialisation’ by parents and the unconscious bias early years practitioners bring to pedagogy and teaching - however hard they try not to - create and magnify differences between the sexes.

We have found that toys and books marketed to girls are more focused on themes of beauty, imagination, caring, cooking and cleaning, stories about princesses or romance, and feature more passive play. We find that toys and books marketed to boys mainly have themes of action, adventure, science, space and transport, and are missing themes around caring. What is this telling children? Boys are being directed to play that is active, spatial, investigative and uses gross motor skills. Girls’ play is supposed to be passive, relational, domestic and about appearance. 

The impact on children’s development is far-reaching. As Aly Murray, the manager of a large day nursery in the south of England, explains: “A boy in the role-play area will learn language, imagination, social, and physical skills just as a girl will, and a girl will learn balance, spatial awareness and stamina from a bike, just like a boy will. Every child needs to learn to count, read and write and these skills have their formative beginnings in play during the early years. It also confuses the child from an early age making them wonder why they cannot play with certain things but others can, not helping with skills like turn-taking and sharing.” (from our article, Toys in the early years)

What early years practitioners can do

Early years practitioners need to ensure that all children get the opportunity to experience different types of play, toys and situations, to allow them to grow into different types of people with a range of skills for the future. Stereotyped ideas about what’s suitable for boys or girls can limit children’s opportunities to learn and develop, affecting their career choices but also their mental health. In the BBC2 documentary in August 2017 ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free’ viewers saw how seven-year-old children had already been affected by these stereotypes. Using some of the tips we outline below, the girls’ self-confidence grew and the boys’ emotional intelligence increased.


Here are eight things you can do to help create an environment which encourages children to think of themselves as individuals, rather than editing their choices through a gender filter.

  1. Create a safe space

Any early years setting should be a safe environment to learn and explore – you can help children by affirming unconventional choices, reassuring them that it’s OK to be different and encouraging a culture of acceptance. For example, a parent may question boys dressing up as princesses – your role is to support the children in their choices.

  1. Challenge stereotypes when you hear them

‘Why can’t a boy wear pink? My dad does.’ ‘Why can’t a girl like football? My wife plays for our local women’s team.’ Children are often very keen to ‘police’ one another and make sure their peers follow the gender ‘rules’ they’ve learned. You can set the example by questioning them, and offering counter-examples from your own experience.

  1. Provide a range of role models

Similarly, give children real-life examples that counter stereotypes, both in your own activities and in topic work and external visitors. Ask for female fire fighters, male nurses or female police officers when there’s an outside visit. Join in with football if you’re a woman, do a bit of knitting as a man. Superheroes aren’t just male fictional characters: they can be nurses or plumbers.


  1. Make the most of books

Take a look at the stories and factual books in your classroom. Are there examples of working women, caring fathers, active girls and creative boys? Are all the animals in the stories male? The It’s Child’s Play report from the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project has suggestions of books with additional notes and ideas for discussion.

Labelling a bookshelf ‘Boys’ Books’ might seem like a good way to encourage reluctant boy readers, but this can be counterproductive, reminding boys of the stereotype that they are supposedly less interested in reading, and encouraging the idea that only certain interests are allowed.

  1. Look at who uses which spaces and equipment

Do certain areas get dominated by certain groups, or by one gender or the other? Are there changes or movements you could make to encourage children to feel equally free to use the home corner, the reading corner, the bikes, the Lego or Duplo, outdoor space… Is it about colour coding and signage? Maybe remove all pink and all blue!

  1. Pick other ways to divide up the children

Are girls’ and boys’ coat peg labels coloured pink or blue? Do boys and girls ever line up separately? Or sit girl/boy/girl/boy? Using gender to divide the children up can be quick and convenient, but it gives them the constant message that being a boy or a girl is the most important thing about them and reinforces stereotypes. Thinking of other ways to group children – perhaps by age, birthday, alphabetically – can be a subtle but effective way of encouraging them to think about their identity in different ways.

  1. Use inclusive language

Small changes, like saying ‘children’ instead of ‘girls and boys’ or ‘parents and carers’ or ‘families’ rather than ‘Mums and Dads’ can help to affirm the things we have in common rather than our differences.

  1. Think about rewards and sanctions

Are boys and girls rewarded differently, or given different sanctions for similar behaviour? Do rewards imply that you think boys and girls can’t like or do the same things?


These tips draw on the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project resources. These contain ideas and examples of how to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom; Let Toys Be Toys has adapted them for the early years.

About Let Toys Be Toys:


We also do the #LetBooksBeBooks campaign with inclusive booksellers Letterbox Library (who offer book packs specifically for early years’ settings).

We also offer a ‘Toymark’ for good practice for shops who do not categorise or label toys in gendered ways: 50 shops and counting now have been awarded this. Anyone can nominate a toyshop or bookshop for this award.

We offer recommended reading and links to other websites that promote good practice in education around gender and equalities http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/further-reading-and-resources/


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment