For adults, play is a break from life. For children, especially in the earliest stages of childhood development, play is life, and toys are the tools of early learning.
That includes lessons about gender. American society has made significant strides towards gender equality over the past century, but children’s toys seem to be moving in the opposite direction, reinforcing traditional roles rather than expanding them. The implications are serious: The way girls play may affect how their brains develop.
There’s a long history of marketing toys by gender. Sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, at the California State University, Sacramento, analyzed more than 7,300 toys in Sears catalogs from the 20th century. She discovered that gender-based toy ads from the 1920s to the 1950s pushed traditional roles: the “little homemaker”; the “young man of industry.” In 1925, about half the toys in the Sears catalog were marketed explicitly to either boys or girls. Many toy advertisements appealed to boys as “young entrepreneurs,” with a sales pitch to use on their parents. In 1945, with World War II winding down and many women leaving factories for domestic life, Sweet says toys were “overwhelmingly targeted at girls in a very explicit way: Your little girl will love this dish set!”