Gender-neutral toys ... Is there a point?

Gender-neutral toys ... Is there a point?

Throughout my pregnancy my mother bemoaned the fact that my partner and I had chosen not to find out the sex of the baby. Not necessarily because mum was impatient to know, but because she wanted to take advantage of every grandparents’ right to spend up big on their grandchildren. “It’s just so hard to find any clothes that aren’t pink or blue,” she told me, “and I can’t find anything at all in yellow.” (Now whether or not yellow is the middle ground between blue and pink, and therefore gender-neutral, is a debate for another day).

But perhaps mum will be gladdened to hear of the news that when it comes to choosing toys she may not need to worry. If, that is, Australian department stores take their lead from Harrods in the UK, who have just revealed a gender-neutral toy department called “Toy Kingdom.”

While dedicating over 26,000 square feet of a department store to redressing gender imbalance and stereotyping is admirable, can we ever really be gender-neutral? 

One of the designers, Matt Smith told The Telegraph that the arrangement of toys into themed zones rather than specific sections for boys and girls was “deliberately non-gender-specific, because we felt that was an antiquated way of looking at toys … I think increasingly kids are playing with an array of different toys and we wanted to give that balance."

Harrods Shed

Harrods' new toy department 'Toy Kingdom' was designed by London and Singapore-based interior architects Shed.

While dedicating over 26,000 square feet of a department store to redressing gender imbalance and stereotyping is admirable, can we ever really be gender-neutral?

Attempts have definitely been made. Consider the family in Canada who has chosen not to share the sex of their third child (named “Storm”), in what they say is “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation…” I understand the sentiment behind their decision; it’s a great stretch of our imagination to choose a present for a newborn without knowing if it’s a boy or a girl. A baby is a baby after all. But you do have to wonder if they have really thought it through. By not announcing if Storm is a boy or a girl, it suddenly becomes the most interesting thing about the child – the opposite effect to what the parents wanted.

And while sex and gender are different things, studies have shown that when monkeys are given choices between stereotypically feminine and masculine toys, the male monkeys show significantly greater interest in “wheeled toys” (such as cars and trucks) while the female monkeys want to spend their time with “plush toys” (for example, dolls and puppets). 

Harrods Shed

Harrods' gender-neutral 'Toy Kingdom'.

Friends of mine have found the same thing. Determined to allow their offspring freedom of choice, they presented their children a range of toys. But you know what? Their boys automatically went for things with moving pieces; wheels, buttons, and things they could build. The girls? They went for dolls and playthings that were modeled on domestic life.

I’m not saying that what Harrods is attempting isn’t progressive and commendable. I love the idea of walking into a toy department that has eschewed the traditional blue and pink for an enchanted forest, a Big Top circus area, and a huge reading room. I also know that toys offer children early glimpses of the world beyond their homes and therefore it is so important that we give impressionable young minds opportunities to explore and create without being subjected to gendered stereotypes.

But fashioning a department store that is gender-neutral won’t mean much unless our children grow up in a society where they feel truly free to discover and express who they are, regardless of gender roles. And perhaps if Harrods is to be truly gender-neutral, they might need to raise a yellow flag and change the name from Toy Kingdom.

Old favourites from the Nintendo Game & Watch range, Ocotapus and Donkey Kong Click for more photos

Toys through time

Old favourites from the Nintendo Game & Watch range, Ocotapus and Donkey Kong

What do you think about Harrods' gender neutral toy department? Leave your comment below or discuss on the Essential Kids Forums.