A Mighty Girl recently launched its new toy section with nearly 2,000 high-quality, girl empowering toys. Liz Alarid, A Mighty Girl Research Intern and mother of a young Mighty Girl, was one of the interns instrumental in building this wonderful resource. In this essay, she shares her thoughts on genderization of toys and its repercussions on children's development.
To learn more about the new toy section, including a few tips on how to get the most out of your visit, visit our Toy FAQ.
Beakers, Blocks, and Rocket Ships: Expanding the Universe of Girl Play
By Liz Alarid, A Mighty Girl Research Intern
Despite my protestations my mother-in-law recently purchased my daughter a Disney princess play tent. It was promptly returned. The issue really wasn’t the princesses -- I have nothing against princesses -- but the notion of regulated play, the kind that directs imagination and restricts choices by prompting kids thematically: while the girls play pretty in the princess castle, the boys zoom around in the car-shaped tent. Marketing makes clear which product is intended for which gender and children recognize this at an early age.
Whether demarcated by the insignia of the gender rift (the princess theme or the camouflage print) or by the aisle such products reside in (the pink aisle, or the blue/gray/black one), toys are divvied according to gender biases at an alarmingly quick rate. This gender-influenced cordoning begs the question: how do toys and the play they inspire affect a child’s understanding of the gender divide? The function of a tent is base, so why decorate it with princesses, or anything else for that matter? What do girls end up missing when fantasy play is confined to a limited thematic scope?
A Mighty Girl aims to bring attention to the increasing gender distinction in the toy aisle. One needs only a quick jaunt through any mainstream store to gather the rote concept of play: stroll the pink aisle for a variety of dolls, castles, and dress up items, then visit the blue aisle for a wide swath of building and war-based toys. The stratification of play is stark and puzzlesome.
What exactly does this rigid gender-based dichotomy intone? Overtly, a message is laid about what acceptable “girl play” consists of, and what defines “boy play”. Covertly, this aisle bias defines what girls and boys “are,” or are to be: girls the damsels, and boys, not the chivalrous princes, but the aggressors.
Some may find such interpretations dubious, after all, they are only toys, and it's only play. Such thinking may conclude that children aren't defined by their toys nor have the ability to be shaped by them; however, grosser understatements couldn't be found: play is the work of the child, and toys their instruments. Through play, children begin to develop their very interaction with the world via the development of motor skills and coordination, and in later stages, begin to understand the nature and scope of their environments through imaginative engagement with their surroundings.
For children, learning and play are not congruent veins but the same practice, and through it they learn about nearly everything. While a baby learns cause and effect from manipulating blocks, a toddler assembles a puzzle, honing motor coordination. Both are learning how to engage with and cause change in their environments. An older child grasps concepts of nurturing and care as she tends to a doll while another ascertains notions of right and wrong through fantastic hero play. Both kids are discovering emotional and social awareness through their playful pursuits.
These activities and countless others are the essential functions of childhood. Through play, a child learns what is possible in the world, and begins to navigate those potentials. They seek to understand how the world works and how they work within it, including what it means to be who they are and what it means to be different from others. From play children begin to learn themselves. As Plato's adage goes, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Or, through creative, open-ended play children are able to discover their whole selves in a prompt and sincere manner.
The tarmac of play is vast and a child's potential is unlimited, especially in the early years of life when a child's mind is at peak flexibility. Early childhood is not particularly gender-preoccupied, but social awareness becomes acute and thorough as a child ages. My 3-year-old has recently notified me that girls only wear skirts and boys pants, and that women grow up to become wives. Her observation of her environment is shrewd, and though her conclusions narrow, she is making informed deductions based on experience.
Such anecdotes make clear the need for ample variety of toys and environments in early childhood and beyond—early opportunities have the potential to expand horizons or diminish them. For example, when we relegate building and science related toys primarily to the “boys” section, we not only limit the imaginative opportunity of girls (their chance to fancy themselves as engineers, architects, and scientists) but also starve them of the indispensable skills bestowed by constructive play, such as spatial reasoning and strategy thinking. Likewise, boys are cheated of the opportunity to practice skills strongly associated with “girl play” such as nurturing and creative thinking, and are not encouraged to imagine themselves as caregivers and crafters.
Why are these skills distributed along gender lines? What is the benefit of allotting skills to children unevenly? I find myself hard pressed to find any answer more plausible than the simple fact that play is an early opportunity to teach children about socially acceptable gender roles, and as they grow, girls are expected to assume the role played in childhood: the damsel. Therein, we find the need for a sincere audit of how our girls are playing.
Aware of the tremendous opportunities granted by play, A Mighty Girl saw the occasion to envision a new type of play for girls, one which is full of diverse potential that sets the stage for an exploratory life. To us, a healthy play experience starts with bringing together the girl and boy aisles while shedding the gender expectations associated with individual toys. We aim to create a collection of toys that is about providing choices that will aid in the flourishing of a holistic experience for girls, one that celebrates their unique identities. To this end we have sections organized by theme and category, rather than gender, and have endeavored to curate a stock that speaks to the diversity of girls’ interests.
Ultimately, A Mighty Girl’s new toy section encourages us to keep an open mind when it comes to creating a nurturing play environment for our girls -- one that will expand their experience of the world by enriching it with invaluable opportunities that are not promoted in the mainstream toy industry’s approach to girlhood. With an equality of imagination beginning in the incredibly formative time of childhood, girls will begin to learn that they truly can become anything they want to be. The creation of an empowering play environment harmonizes the wishes we have for our girls, the ideals we wish to instill in them and the messages we hope to convey to them, which say, in essence: be who you are, because you are mighty!
(And, conveniently this wonderful resource is a great guide for those sweet mother-in-laws and others like her out there who may be amazed to see all of the wonderful options that exist when you step outside of the girl aisle’s narrow interpretation of girlhood. )