What exactly is a “girl’s” toy, anyway?

Peter PanYesterday, John Lewis invited us to go and have a tour of their flagship London store and to meet up with some fellow parent bloggers. It was a great opportunity to fit in some Christmas shopping so Flea and I jumped at the chance.

We had a fantastic morning, including the chance to meet the other bloggers. Flea thought the John Lewis Christmas shop was the greatest thing she'd ever seen. "There's a whole wall of Christmas stockings, Mummy … That's just… Wow." she said, in tones of awe and wonder. 

After shopping up a storm in John Lewis, Flea and I headed up to Hamleys. Standing in the lobby, I asked Flea what she wanted to look at first. The signs next to the escalator describe what’s on each floor: construction toys in the basement, soft toys on the ground floor, pre-school toys on the first floor – and then there’s a floor for ‘girls toys’ and a floor for ‘boys toys’.

Where’s the Playmobil?” asked Flea.

Clearly, Flea doesn’t really think of toys in terms of being for boys or girls. And I admit that pleases me – I’ve always told her, “There’s no such thing as boys' things and girls' things. You can wear anything you like, you can play with anything you like.”

It seemed important because Flea’s natural inclination is for small toys that allow her to create imaginary worlds – so she’s always gravitated towards Playmobil but also small action figures, tiny dinosaurs, toy cars – things that would often be considered ‘boys’ toys.

It drives me bonkers that retailers like Hamleys and ELC are still insisting on dividing toys into boys’ and girls’ categories. It’s not a division that kids will naturally make themselves – but it’s certainly one they learn about quickly enough. I’ve lost count of the number of other kids who say to Flea, “Why are you wearing boys’ clothes?” or “You can’t play with that, it’s for boys.” 

Sooner or later, I guess peer pressure will kick in and Flea will learn to do what’s ‘appropriate’ for her gender. And I admit, I find it sad to think this might be the only year that Flea went to school on National Book Day dressed as Peter Pan when every other girl in her year was dressed as a princess.

I’m not arguing that being a princess is a bad thing, or that little girls shouldn’t want to play with toy kitchens. But if you’re a little girl who doesn’t want to be a Princess, and who doesn’t really like to play with dolls – I’m not sure you should have to buy your toys on a different floor of the toy store. What do you think?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. Anna
    8th December 2009 / 11:34 am

    Great to meet you and Flea yesterday! And I love the Peter Pan costume

  2. 8th December 2009 / 11:36 am

    I completely agree (and love the Peter Pan costume!). I was thinking about a dance mat for Max’s christmas pressie but it would seem that only girls like to dance as the only ones available are all plastered in Hannah Montana or Brats – in neon pink and headache-inducing purple (and I wouldn’t have bought them even if I did have a daughter!). Didn’t anyone see Britian’s Got Talent? Boys like to dance too! Rant, rant, rant…….

  3. 8th December 2009 / 12:34 pm

    Livi will only ever dress as a cowboy, skeleton, superman, darth vader etc and is not at all interested in her princess costumes. But then she also has an alter-ego called “Man” who often has to come and stay because his house has burned down. Maybe she is just a bit strange…..

  4. 8th December 2009 / 12:46 pm

    I totally agree. We were shocked when looking at dressing-up clothes at Halloween to find that ELC had split them into clothes for boys and girls and that girls were supposed to be nurses and boys got to be doctors. And, yes, there’s more to it, as well. We’ve always ensured Rosemary is given and offered a good mix of toys and activities and she likes a bit of both. She likes football and building, but also loves dressing up as a fairy and a ballerina. And we are very happy about this mix.
    But recently she’s been coming back from playgroup saying things like ‘That’s not for girls.’ ‘Only boys do that.’, which is worrying. Oddly, at playgroup she plays almost exclusively with two girls, whereas at nursery school she plays with a few boys as well as a few girls. I don’t know if there’s a different attitude among the staff, or if it’s just a coincidence.
    I hope Flea manages to keep up plenty of her ‘boyful’ interests when faced with peer pressure. I think she’s likely to, as you’ve given her such a good start!

  5. 8th December 2009 / 12:55 pm

    I have to agree with you on this one. The boys both have a pink pram and baby’s, we dont do girls nad boys, just toys.
    Why would we want to stick them in a gender box at this age is beyond me

  6. Kassia @ Working Mum
    8th December 2009 / 2:37 pm

    I’m with you on this one. Both my girls enjoy ‘boy toy’ as much as ‘girl toys’, a particular favourite is the wooden Thomas the tank engine stuff (we have 4 large boxes of it).
    It’s true that once Ami went to school she started to like Barbie and the Disney Princess stuff but she soesn’t make the distinction between who gets to play with what. And going up and down between floors is such as pain.

  7. Chris Brennan
    8th December 2009 / 3:30 pm

    My wife used to work for ELC at its glamorous Swindon HQ and discussions over splitting the sexes was ‘robust’ to say the least. I know this as I listened *intently to her letting off steam at the end of the day. However, most managers (at the time don’t know about now) and merchandisers were as one; customers ask for boys and girls toys.
    Not that this has much to do with the girl/boy toy argument, but I just thought it worth mentioning that they do indeed discuss the down/up side of splitting toys by sex. If it’s the customers driving this mechanising plan or the received wisdom of marketing and management doing this is up for debate.
    I think toys are toys and the only restriction we’re placing on our child is no weapons be they pink or blue.
    *Sometimes I may have been watching the football and not listening as closely as I should and for this I apologise to all women everywhere.

  8. Liz (LivingwithKids)
    8th December 2009 / 3:42 pm

    Totally agree. My six-year-old nephew’s favourite colour is pink.

  9. Vic
    8th December 2009 / 4:12 pm

    I wonder if toys are divided more for the benefit of boys than girls; girls seem to worry less that a toy in for a ‘boy’.
    Growing up, one of my brother’s favourite thigns was playing at being a dinner lady (nothing as high class as being a chef) and the boy will now happily spend hours playing in a toy kitchen. Perhaps as we start to see less of a gender divide in the roles we undertake at work, that will cross over to the games our kids play.

  10. 8th December 2009 / 4:54 pm

    At the free-for-all that is playgroup, I see lots of boys playing in the toy kitchen and pushing prams and lots of girls playing with toolkits. They are all united in their adoration of wheeled vehicles. One of my favourite sights was CJ pushing a dolly in a pram with one hand, whilst wielding a toy saw in the other. It annoys me intensely when things are marketed exclusively at one sex or the other, it just seems so outdated, sexist and wrong.

  11. 8th December 2009 / 5:41 pm

    I made sure I bought my son when he was little a brush and dustpan set and a little hoover – I thought his future wife would thank me for that one! (She does)!!

  12. 8th December 2009 / 5:57 pm

    Fab costume! Never unsderstood the boy/girl thing myself. My brothers got much cooler toys than I did. But the PD is vehemently girlie in her love of shoes, handbags and baking. Don’t know how that happened.

  13. 8th December 2009 / 7:18 pm

    Totally with you on this, we’ve always stayed clear of gender stereotyping on toys but the spud has gravitated naturally to cars and buses and trains and planes and… but he does want a tea-set for Christmas and I think Santa has one in the sack already…

  14. 8th December 2009 / 7:42 pm

    I agree – Hamleys is the same here – and as a result I never go to the boys floor which is a shame as i probably miss out on some great stuff for the girls. So I’ve made a decision. Next time I go to the Shoppng Centre (the payoff is always half an hour playing in Hamleys once I get all my stuff done) i’m going to take them to all the floors and let them decide. I think the gender thing does come about because kids probably do gravitate to one sort of toy – but not exclusively so they should have access to all sorts. My twin 5 year old nephews were here for the weekend and they spent the whole time playing with the dolls and prams… and actually although a COMPLETE princess, Daisy loves her train set and spends all summer playing with worms in the garden… so i guess i don’t mind all the pink so much as long as there’s a bit of mud thrown in for good measure! good point though – maybe you should start a blogger’s petitio??? the floors should be divided by age, not gender?

  15. 8th December 2009 / 8:47 pm

    I agree! SC loves to play with cars, construction stuff and all manner of toys that are generally considered to be boys stuff. She asked me the other day if it was OK for girls to like blue and boys to like pink – I of course said yes. She said that it’s also OK to like both.. again mummy nods enthusiastically! I fully admit to being a girly girl but don’t have any such expectation for her… she’ll be what she’ll be. The things I know she’ll love most for Christmas will be her Ben 10 watch and the Bob The Builder power tool set – she knows I owned my own tools when I lived in my flat! Having said all that she is showing a strong love for shoes already! Great to meet you and Flea yesterday.. she was fantastic and a real credit to you!

  16. 8th December 2009 / 10:15 pm

    I hate it too. My son has gone to the dark side now. He used to be firmly on the pink.

  17. Sally
    8th December 2009 / 10:24 pm

    @Anna – thanks to you and to John Lewis for inviting us. It was a fantastic event and Flea had a great time.
    @HotCrossMum – you make a good point, I’d never really thought about it. Are they really all aimed at girlie girls?
    @Catherine – all the best kids are weird.
    @Tasha – I agree, and I think it is worrying when tehy first start coming home with these ideas. I REALLY noticed it when Flea started pre-school. she would even point at sweets in the supermarket and tell you if a Bounty was for boys or girls. I suspect I push the “equality” angle much harder just to try and compensate for these silly messages. And yes, I do hope it lasts.
    @MadHouse – I really, really think it’s just about retailers wanting to sell more stuff. After all if you buy a gender-neutral walker for a baby girl then have a boy, you don’t need to buy another. But if you buy pink, and then have a little boy…
    @Kassia – yes, Flea loves Brio which is sort of sad because it’s SO expensive!
    @Chris – I’ve no doubt you’re right. So many people I know think that it’s only feminists who ‘fuss’ about this issue and it doesn’t really matter at all. I suspect I’m in a minority, still. But interesting to know it’s being hotly debated by retailers.
    @Liz – Excellent!
    @Vic – Absolutely, I think I might worry more if I had a boy. One of my friends has a little boy and her husband literally said NO to a pushchair for their son (you know how toddlers LOVE to push things on wheels) because he genuinely worried it might make the little boy gay. Pfft.
    @Kath – agreed, I think all toddlers love pushing anything on wheels, pram or otherwise.
    @Diney – well done!
    @Domestique – Agreed. And yes, it’s a fab outfit – she wore it for three days straight when she first got it!
    @Sparx – to an extent, I think stereotypes evolve for a reason. I’m sure boys in general are more likely to want certain toys more than others – my issue is just when kids are steered towards that because you can’t assume ALL girls want certain things and somehow make them feel less like ‘girls’ if they want something different. And the same for boys, obviously.
    @Mummy Mania – totally agree and I think the Pink Stinks campaign is already running a petition online.
    @ThatGirl39 – ah yes, Flea loves to copy me using drills and jigsaws. I’m a firm believer that a girl should be able to use a range of power tools. Great to meet you too, and of course I’m happy to take credit for Flea! (though I suspect I just got really, really lucky with her)

  18. 9th December 2009 / 7:40 am

    I have always had “boys toys” for my girl since she was little cars etc, but naturally as she has gotten older she gravated towards “girl toys” dolls and kitchen stuff. my boy is only 18 months loves nothing more than cooking in the kitchen and him and his sister both get dressed up as tinkerbell. I have no issue with them playing with “boy/girl” toys because they are children and they are playing. They both have pink toy strollers, had they of had blue I would of probably got him that one but they didn’t so he got pink, he loves it.
    It doesn’t however bother me that shops have pink or they have levels for boy and girl toys
    we have toy drills and strollers, balls and dollies and they both play with them equally all the time. I think just let kids be if you can afford to give them the choices to play with whatever they will 🙂

  19. 9th December 2009 / 11:44 am

    As a tom boy I avoided girlie stuff and now with two boys I watch intently the things they play with: dressing up and imaginative play is BIG usually with swords etc. I never bought them feminine toys as such because I don’t like them. However, when they come to me and say such and such is a girl/boy toy or only girls do that I always challenge it but school and ones peers do have a strong influence and children much prefer being safe and part of a crowd then being on their own. We can only be there to help them think through their decisions and to challenge the perceived wisdom of a group. It is a brave child who stands out, as one who did and got bullied for it, I am not too sure I would encourage my boys to be too vocal/different.

  20. 9th December 2009 / 7:12 pm

    Completely endorse the non-gender stereotyping view, yet… I rather suspect that part of the answer to the National Book Day Fairy Princess overload is that it’s generally the easiest costume to rustle up for girls in a hurry (and which parent isn’t generally in one?!): absolutely everywhere sells pink tutus, disney-princess dresses, and little fluffy wings.
    Harry’s favourite activities do usually involve cars, admittedly, but shuffling around in my shoes comes a close second!

  21. 9th December 2009 / 11:36 pm

    I am totally with you on this. My daughter was never a girly girl. Sometimes got laughed at about it but never went pink and frilly.

  22. 13th December 2009 / 3:38 am

    Totally agree. But then I’m not in the business of selling toys and other kid merchandise.

  23. Simms
    20th December 2009 / 11:39 am

    Same here. My son has gone to the other side too now. He used to be firmly on the pink. Oh well, we get over these things.

  24. angelsandurchinsblog
    4th January 2010 / 11:37 am

    I missed this post when you first wrote it, but couldn’t agree more. I hate the whole ‘it’s for boys/girls’ thing. Mine love tiny figures and making imaginary worlds, and the oldest, now four, always liked pink until he was told he couldn’t because it was ‘just for girls’. The middle one loves cooking (I am determined that my three boys will actually be able to feed themselves. My brothers can cook, my husband can’t/won’t), and his favourite toy is his play kitchen. My three boys make guns from sticks and play endless games of goodies and baddies, but I’d hate them to think that their dollshouse was off limits.