Boys and girls play differently. Any parent will tell you that.

Children may have different preferences, but even the most car-mad child doesn’t play with cars ALL the time. It’s important that children get a wide range of play experiences to help them develop different skills. So why can’t a session of crashing toy cars be followed by cooking up some plastic lunch?

And different styles of play don’t necessarily mean different toys. Children might approach the same toy but in a different way. For example one child may take two dinosaurs and set up a role play, another might engage the dinosaurs in a battle!  But a dinosaur is not intrinsically a male or female toy. Allowing children a wide variety of toys enables them to explore their imagination, so there’s really no reason to mark off certain toys “for boys” and others “for girls”.

In homes and daycare settings boys and girls play together every day – why do toy retailers want to tell them they’re doing it wrong?

But boys and girls are different!

We’re not denying that there may be some innate differences between boys and girls. That’s a debate for another time.

But it’s worth noting that even those who champion gender differences recognise that there is a lot of overlap between the two sexes in their skills and interests. This means many boys will enjoy playing with dollhouses and buggies and many girls will like to play with construction toys and science kits, and many kids will enjoy both.

It’s also worth noting that much scientific research relating to gender toy preference refers to older children who have already picked up messages from society about what they should play with.

No-one is physically stopping children from choosing the toys that they want.

Whilst no-one is stopping children physically, these signs are telling children what they are supposed to like. They reinforce the very real social stigma attached to children playing with the “wrong toys”.  A parent might be happy for their child to play with whatever they want, but they may be afraid of their children being teased by their peers. This is especially true when it comes to boys playing with “girls’” toys, eg. toy kitchens, buggies and dolls. As any parent of a son will know, the taunt of being called a “girl” or “gay” is a common one for young boys.

And of course many, if  not most, toys are bought as gifts, often by people who don’t know the child well. Falling back on tired gender stereotypes may be an easy option,  but a child may never find out if they would enjoy a particular kind of toy if they’re never offered it.

They’re just signs! Children don’t take any notice of them.

If no one takes any notice of the signs then why keep them?

We’ve found from the many comments of parents on Facebook that children are actually putting down toys they want because they are in the ‘wrong’ aisle. We want children to feel comfortable choosing any toy they want.

The marketing industry spends millions on influencing children’s choices and these signs are part of that process. They  are a small but real part of the wider pressure on children to keep within their gender norms.

But does it all really matter? They’re just toys!

We think it does matter. A lot. Child psychologists have shown that the toys children play with develop certain skills and reinforce certain interests.

Boys are encouraged to play with construction toys that hone their spatial skills whilst the toys labelled for girls are geared towards domestic tasks. This is clearly reflected in the gender imbalance in adult society where women are under-represented in the STEM industries whilst men rarely tend to be the primary care-giver for their children. This is a waste of talent and potential.

Similarly, whilst toys aimed at boys encourage activity and adventure, many girls’ toys send the message that appearance is what matters. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of adults with eating disorders are women.

What’s wrong with little girls liking pink?

Nothing at all! But pink is just one colour amongst many, yet it seems to be the only one offered to girls. As with toys, we would like girls to have a more varied choice.

Retailers and manufacturers use colour-coding to indicate whether a toy is for a boy or a girl. Children know this and choose their toys accordingly. But as we have seen, what is available in the two different colours differs greatly and effectively restricts children’s choices.  The reality is that very few boys will play with pink toys because they fear being teased. Let’s reduce this stigma by taking down the signs.

It’s also worth noting that blue used to be the conventional colour for girls whilst red was the colour for boys. There’s no scientific basis for girls liking pink!

It makes sense to categorise the aisles that way. The shops do it for a reason.
We think that the retailers are shooting themselves in the foot by telling half of their potential customers that an item is not for them.

‘Girl’ and ‘Boy’ categories simply don’t make sense – we’ve seen magic sets, musical instruments and games and puzzles under ‘Boys’, and arts and crafts and Olympic mascots under ‘Girls’. This can’t possibly help shoppers find what they want. We suggest that retailers just say what is item is, not who it is for, to help shoppers find what they are looking for.

Plenty of big retailers, on and offline, manage to display their stock without resorting to gender. See our retailers page for more details.

Many shoppers are frustrated by these silly generalisations about what boys and girls like, and are now looking elsewhere for shops sell without these stereotypes and which categorise their products according to theme and function rather than gender. We’ve awarded over 50 such retailers with our Toymark award for good practice; for a shop near you see our directory of recommended retailers.

Those signs help relatives and friends find what to buy in a hurry.
If relatives and friends buy for children solely according to gender there is a good chance that they will get it wrong. Not all girls like pink and sparkly things and not all boys like cars and diggers. And lots of children might like both!

If you’re not sure what to buy a child, it would be a good idea to contact the parents and find out the interests of the individual child rather than make assumptions based on the child’s gender.

We’re not actually asking for all signs to be taken down, just those that are based on gender. Signs indicating theme and function will still help relatives to find a suitable present.

Aren’t you just trying to force your gender politics on children by making boys play with dolls?
 We want children to have more freedom, not less.  It’s perfectly fine for boys to play with trucks and girls to play with dolls. But we want them to have a wider choice, and not feel restricted by labels or peer pressure to conform to someone else’s idea of what they are supposed to like.

A child can, and should, enjoy playing with a wide range of toys. Just because a girl likes playing with toy kitchens doesn’t mean she won’t like playing with aeroplanes. Each child is an individual with a variety of interests. Why cut their imagination in half ?

This is Political Correctness gone mad! You can take equality too far.

This isn’t about political correctness. This is about doing the right thing by our children and giving them a real and varied choice. We believe in equality, but this isn’t about making children the same. It’s about giving children the choice to be individuals.

Shops have always done this. Why complain now?
Actually they haven’t. The blatant segregation of toys along gender lines has become more pronounced over the last couple of decades, as has the aggressive marketing of pink versions of toys for girls. For example, many mothers tell us that the toys that they enjoyed playing with as young girls, eg. lego, meccano, marble runs, are now being marketed solely towards boys.
But getting rid of labels won’t make a difference, because the gender stereotyping comes from wider issues in society.
 It’s true that the problem is bigger than just the labelling in stores. But this is a positive step in the right direction and it will hopefully make people think about those issues.

Besides, we all have to start somewhere!

Pink and blue are just colours, why are you claiming they mean girls and boys?

Over the last few decades, pink and blue have been increasingly used by marketers to offer a two-way choice to customers: feminine versus masculine. Most children and adults now understand this shorthand, and will generally believe that something in blue is aimed at boys and something in pink is for girls only. We would love the toy industry to make use of all the colours in the rainbow, meaning that pink and blue can return to being just two more colours for children to choose from.

Why do you sometimes use 'for girls and boys' after your name? Doesn't this exclude children who identify as non-binary?

Although we are generally known as ‘Let Toys Be Toys’, we added ‘for girls and boys’ at the start of the campaign to make it clear that we were focusing on gender issues and also to challenge the toy industry idea that a toy is either for a boy OR a girl, not for boys AND girls.

As time has gone on we have tried to be more inclusive with our language. We recognise that gender identity is diverse and complex. That said, when speaking to retailers (and sometimes the general public) we often use language they will recognise and use themselves, for the purposes of clarity and accessibility. You might, for example, hear us refer to a child in a toy advert as a boy or girl based on their appearance although of course their biological sex or gender identity is not actually apparent.



  1. chris

    i think there is just too much free time if we are worrying about this. there are so many causes out there…and this just seems kind of ridiculous when we take a step back and look at the rest of the world and see what is going on.

    also, stereotypes wouldn’t be stereotypes unless there was some truth to them. boys want to be physical and girls are more nurturing. now, the beauty of human beings is that we are so infinitely complex and don’t have to fit in these boxes, but let’s be honest and accept the truth about a vast majority.

    • i agree there are kids starving, being abused, asaulted, lacking in education so many areas we can focuse our attention when it comes to kides what toyes they play with and how it shapes their lives is the least of them.

    • Holly

      I’m going to be honest you’ve just completely bought into the stereotype – as a woman I definitely don’t consider myself more nurturing than my male partner and I can also definitely say that I am just as physical as my brother and my male friends. Girls are told that they MUST be more nurturing as a female and boys are told that they MUST like sport and be physical from such a young age that people think it’s nature not nurture that causes these stereotypes.

  2. Tricia

    Chris, There are of course lots of causes out there and there’s nothing to say that we can’t support more than one cause at a time. Rather than go into all the reasons I think this is an important campaign I’d like to answer your first point with a quote from Yasmeen Hassan, Global director of Equality Now, in a recent Guardian article, (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/03/twenty-first-century-suffragettes-now), that asked what modern day suffragettes would fight for:

    “Sexual violence, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and the impact of laws that discriminate on the basis of sex are the issues that I believe suffragettes would be working on today. Feminism is now less of a fight and more about fixing the imbalances in the world, so that all of us benefit. A more gender-equal world would result in solving many of the current problems, including poverty, conflict and terrorism. To get there, a good starting point is challenging the sex stereotypes that we encounter in our daily lives.”

    As to your second point about stereotypes being based on truth, this is something often said by people who want to justify their use of stereotypes. Stereotypes are usually based on the premise that different behaviours are innate, but the fact is science does not back these assertions up. If one group of people typically excel at certain activities as opposed to others, there are almost certainly social factors in play. Streotypes are not based on truth but on social inequality and invented links between groups of people and certain skills, activities or behaviors where none inherently exist.

    If, however, for the sake of argument, there is some truth in the idea of innate differences it still doesn’t alter the fact that all children should be offered the choice to play with all toys.

  3. Lou

    as a child both mine and my brothers favourite toy was a wooden castle complete with dragons, royal family, nights and many other characters. Admittedly, we played very differently- I would make furniture and bring the characters to life whereas my brother would fight the invading army/dragons. However, we learnt to play together and play in different ways to stretch our imaginations and develop skills. It saddens me to think that children will miss out on this opportunity.
    But, I understand how difficult it is to overcome these stereotypes. I volunteer with disabled children and play with them in a one-to-one environment. I am hoping to become a doctor yet I realised the other day that when a young girl pointed to a medical toy set I asked ‘do you want to play nurses?’ I heard it immediately and since then have been making a conscious effort to avoid gender stereotyping but it’s going to take some time.

  4. chris again

    we’ll have to agree to disagree. as far as having many fights we can battle, no. you can’t die on every hill.

    men and women are different intrinsically, not by nurture. please save me the anecdotal evidence.
    again, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    • I agree men and women are different intrinsically to a certain extent. However, they are ALSO different by nurture – and their intrinsic differences are blown out of all proportion by nurture.

      If girls and boys are allowed the same toys and chose differently, that’s fine. However, if they would actually prefer a toy that is labelled for another gender, that proves their differences are not as intrinsic as you might think.

      Toys were actually less gender stereotyped in the past when men and women had very different roles in society.

  5. Hi chris again,

    Whether or not you’re interested in evidence, fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether males and females are different on average. Whether you believe in the mould or not, not everyone fits it, and no-one fits it all of the time. It’s simply not on to tell children what they’re supposed to like as a result of their gender. Kids should feel free to choose – that’s the point of the Let Toys Be Toys campaign.

  6. Kristen MJ

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about this topic, and I have two boys of my own. Here’s what bugs me, and maybe you can address it. I completely agree that boys and girls should feel free to play with any toy they wish. I agree that many toys are way too gendered and exclusive. However, I don’t agree that no toys should ever be marketed TOWARDS boys or girls. That does not mean a toy is exclusive to a boy or a girl, but I actually see some advantage to a toy having more “boy-like” attributes or more “girl-like” attributes (depending on what filter you are looking at the toy through). For example, I love American Girl dolls, and think they are beautiful and that their product and brand is intended to promote good play and empower girls. Inherently, the American Girl product does not need to change because it’s too feminine–there’s nothing wrong with being feminine. I think the problem arises when a product is made apparently to the exclusion of the opposite gender. The message that boys can’t play with dolls seems to come along with the American Girl product (or Barbie or any of the other 100’s of dolls out there). That seems to be the problem. What do we do about it? Just make everything neutral and say, “Now boys, feel free to play with dolls!” That seems too simplistic. And with something like dolls, I don’t think the toys themselves should be completely gender neutral or ignore gender. Gender is something that definitely exists and should be recognized and celebrated, not ignored. So, then, what do we do with the problem of “boys can’t play with dolls”? In my opinion, we have to first break down the barrier. The market needs a doll that is created with boys in mind. The dolls themselves should be boys (and girls too, but we have a lot of those right now!). And the brand should be fun, cool, and (for lack of a better term) boyish. Once, and only once, boys feel completely comfortable playing with dolls, can we have a doll product that is suitable for both genders without question. Until then, I think there needs to be something targeted at boys to break the barrier. Otherwise, the reality is that boys will continue to avoid dolls simply because they are too feminine and have historically been marketed only to girls.

  7. Concerned citizen for the upbringing of millennials

    While I agree that children should be given the option to choose which toys they play with, I disagree that they are forced into concrete gender zones from which there is no escape. Children are imaginative and play with whatever fits into their schema, which is developed based on their personality, behavior, and social cues that they receive from their parents and peers. Also developmentally, children are the most confident between the ages of 2-11 than they will be throughout their entire life, meaning that they are not likely to be “ashamed” to be playing with the “wrong” toy.
    Regarding marketing to boys and girls specifically, it is not a hidden agenda to make sure children play within their gender norms. Marketing a product to a specific group of consumers is a the foundation of any business, regardless of the product being sold or the marketing technique. Companies advertise princess and mermaid themed items to girls because that is what MOST girls are interested in. It is not because the girls have been subliminally conditioned to like pink princesses and mermaids–they are simply more interested in these toys than MOST boys.
    All in all, this seems to be a large expansion on political correctness. Yes, I read the tab on political correctness. Yes, I still completely disagree. Forcing businesses, consumers, parents, and children to stop referring to items being “for girls” and “for boys” is not equality–it is a movement that is being forced on everyone with or without their consent. My girls love being “girly” and all things pink. They loved the bright pink aisles in the toy store full of Barbie Dolls and fairy wings and pink and purple dollhouses. How do you explain to children that the reason the toy store went greyscale is because adults want everything to be politically correct? That they chose to blame gender stereotypes on toys? This movement isn’t for the benefit of children, it’s for the satisfaction of adults.

    • Children (and adults) are influenced by marketing and labelling, see our blogpost for just a few examples: http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/thats-for-girls-and-thats-for-boys/ Telling children that only certain toys and activities are on offer to boys or girls is boring, limiting and offers a platform for bullies.

      If your girls love all things pink, that’s great – as a campaign we have no problem with dolls, pink or fairy wings. We just want boys to feel equally confident to choose to play with those things if they want to, and girls to know that other colours are available… The campaign isn’t calling for grey or beige, just reminding retailers that there’s a whole rainbow of colours other than blue or pink. Check out the colourful options on offer in our toymark retailers – anything but greyscale.

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