Let Toys Be Toys

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It all started on Mumsnet. Amongst posts about baby names, the etiquette of children’s party invites and interesting shopping lists left in Waitrose shopping trolleys, comments started to arise about how much toyshops had changed in recent years.

“AIBU [am I being unreasonable] to feel f***ed off that shops feel the need to define toys by gender?” asked one poster. A growing number of parents felt angry at how toy marketing in the twenty-first century is overwhelmingly focused on telling children what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Since the mid-nineties, toyshops have started to divide their aisles in two, with large ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ signs telling children where they can shop. Books are being published with titles such as ‘The Brilliant Boys Colouring Book’ (as opposed to ‘The Beautiful Girls Colouring Book’). Marketing images rarely show boys and girls playing together as they do in real life, but present them as two entirely different species: one pretty, sparkly and sweet natured, and the other aggressive, sporty and messy.

As parents, we know these stereotypes don’t reflect what goes on in our own homes. Boys and girls are more alike than different. They enjoy playing with a range of toys and only start to limit themselves once they understand this is what adults expect of them.

Relieved to find that there were many others with the same concerns, this group of (mainly) mothers started to work together to form the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which challenges the notion that boys and girls require different toys.

It’s not easy running a campaign with people you’ve never met. Our group is made up of people from across the UK and Ireland, most of whom have jobs and are raising a young family. Social media has played a vital role in conducting online meetings, sharing ideas, distributing tasks and offering support.

As parents with boys and girls, we decided to focus on the potential damage that is done to all children by limiting their play experiences. Boys and girls are bombarded with messages from a young age about what their gender should mean for them, and this can be confusing for those who don’t fit into neat little boxes (which of course is all of us!). To encourage more women in STEM careers and more hands-on dads, the challenge surely starts in childhood.

During the campaign’s first year, our primary focus was convincing toy retailers to remove ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl’ signs from shop floors and own-brand toys. A petition, website with blogposts from a number of different collaborators, and Twitter and Facebook accounts were all set up. Stores were contacted both through the old-school method of letter-writing and via social media campaigns. At first, progress was slow. Stores trotted out tired old standard responses about reflecting ‘what customers want’ and stated that children were welcome to buy whichever toys they wanted.

And then came Boots. A photograph of science kits under a sign saying ‘gifts for boys’ went viral, and Let Toys Be Toys was called upon to comment. The issue was raised on BBC’s Watchdog and was covered by national press. Boots agreed the signs were misleading and removed them. At this point, other stores started to take notice. They started to get back in contact and we received invitations to visit head office from a number of retailers. And, most importantly, signs started to come down. By Christmas 2014, we’d seen a 60% reduction in shops with explicit boy/girl toy signs, and a number of major retailers had rethought their policy on the matter (including Boots, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Toys R Us, Debenhams, Fenwick, The Entertainer, TK Maxx, Sainsbury’s, Hobbycraft and Wilkinson).

In its second year, the campaign is branching out into challenging children’s story and activity books labelled by gender (which includes its own petition), looking at the role manufacturers play, and putting together a support pack to assist schools with addressing gender roles.

One of the biggest criticisms aimed at a campaign such as Let Toys Be Toys, is ‘haven’t you got anything better to do?’ Toy marketing may seem a niche issue, but the way gender stereotypes are realised in early life has a huge impact on the larger picture of inequality.  We are a small group of volunteers but we are passionate about what we do, and – step by step – we’re helping children to enjoy childhood that little bit more.