5 Ways Kids Benefit from Gender-Neutral Toys and Activities
When you remove labels from a toy, boys and girls are free to explore STEAM fields and the areas that really interest them.
The days of telling little girls to play with dolls and little boys to stick with trucks are long gone—and for good reason. Thanks to the rise of gender-neutral toys, kids have the freedom to play and explore without being restricted by stereotypical gender roles.
According to Ken Seiter, executive vice president of marketing communications at the Toy Association, gender-neutral toys have "really become more and more prevalent" in the past five years. It's a toy trend that's "definitely going to continue," predicts Seiter. And that's good news for everyone.
Here are five of many ways in which kids benefit from playing with gender-neutral toys.
1. They don't reinforce gender stereotypes.
"Toys are toys, until we tell the child that it is for boys or girls," says Elizabeth Lombardo, Psy.D., author of the book From Entitlement to Intention: Raising Purpose-Driven Children. "That gives a label to the toy, which a child will internalize...Internalizing 'Girls play with dolls, for example,' may lead children to believe moms take care of the children, not dads. In essence, gender-focused toys can perpetuate stereotypes."
But with gender-neutral toys, Dr. Lombardo says kids are free "to explore their interests [based on their own preferences], not according to how society pigeon holes them according to their gender."
2. They introduce kids to STEM/STEAM early.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and STEAM (which adds the "A" for art) toys used to be marketed more heavily towards boys, but not anymore. According to a new report from the Toy Association, one of the unifying characteristics for all good STEAM toys is that they're gender-neutral and inclusive.
When kids play with STEAM toys, it engages both sides of the brain. "The left side's the logical [side], and the right side is what I call the magical side, the artistic side," says the Toy Association's Seiter, adding that such toys foster the use of both sides. "That's gender-neutral," he says. "That is all of us."
3. They promote experimental thinking.
Gender-neutral toys, particularly those that geared towards STEAM, are designed to encourage open-ended play with room for trial and error.
"[They] help to teach children that not only are mistakes okay, they are part of the learning process," says Tom Runtz, director of product development at Learning Resources. "And perhaps most importantly, STEAM toys encourage children to develop an inquisitiveness about the world around them and how things work, and what new, wondrous things can be dreamed up and invented."
4. They open kids up to STEAM-related careers.
According to a survey conducted by the Toy Association, a whopping 76 percent of parents want their child to end up in a STEM-related career. Introducing boys and girls to gender-neutral STEAM toys won't necessarily result in kids growing up to be engineers and scientists, but it definitely opens the door and provides an early introduction to these fields.
"Look at the example of a chemistry set," says Seiter. "You see what that does for [kids] in terms of understanding the physics and understanding the chemistry of something on a very primary level, but that can eventually grow."
5. They empower children.
Gender-neutral STEAM toys allow for creative, hands-on play that helps instill confidence in boys and girls.
"On a broader level, they teach children to pursue their own interests, independent of their gender," says Dr. Lombardo. "They empower children to develop goals and overcome obstacles, skills that are valuable in any profession—and in life."