STEM toys have been receiving a lot of positive press lately for encouraging enthusiasm in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects. Many of these toys, however, aren’t gender-neutral — being aimed specifically at either young boys or young girls. Today, we’re going to look at the growing call for gender neutrality in STEM toys, and examine how gender-typed toys can negatively impact early development.
The Educational Impact of STEM Toys
In order to understand how gender-typing STEM toys can have a negative impact on early learners, we must first understand how integral they are in setting positive learning precedents. In addition to boosting confidence in STEM subjects, STEM toys help to equip kids with problem-solving skills. By learning to look at science, technology, engineering, and math fundamentals with an optimistic attitude early on, children also become less likely to shy away from core STEM subjects when the going gets tougher in middle and high school.
Why Gender Neutrality Matters
In the STEM field today, women are wildly underrepresented, making up only 26% of the US STEM workforce. And evidence shows that the precedent for this trend begins early on, with young girls beginning to think of STEM subjects as “not for girls” by the age of three, and losing interest altogether by the age of 15. In a nutshell, this is because early gender stereotypes teach girls that STEM subjects are innate rather than learned. These girls then begin school with a preconceived idea that things like math and science are easier for boys. And by expecting to struggle in these subjects, they begin to do just that. As Christie Pearson, Program Coordinator for SMU Lyle School of Engineering explains:
“Girls and boys are different, but their opportunities don’t have to be. Playrooms are children’s first classrooms, toys their first textbooks, and their imagination the curriculum. The current education system requires all male and female students to take core classes: English, math, and science, in primary education. In order to better prepare young children for success in the classroom and beyond, we should bring our children to a toy aisle that stocks an endless array of opportunities for all.”
What Does Gender Neutrality Mean in the Context of Toys?
From a manufacturing perspective, making STEM toys gender-neutral is more a matter of packaging and branding than anything else. Many toy companies market their products specifically by gender when there is no real need to do so. That problem is then compounded by retail stores, which often place “girl” and “boy” toys in separate aisles. For Donald Coolidge, CEO and cofounder of CogniToys, foregoing gender stereotypes has been a priority right from the beginning. As he explained in a 2015 digital trends interview:
““We decided that the very first prototype design should be a bright, neon green as opposed to blue or pink, to encourage all children to play with the toy. Even though we are now offering the toy in green, pink, and blue, we find what is more important that just designing a gender-neutral toy is encouraging children to understand that the color of the toy they choose shouldn’t be based on gender. Children should be able to choose a CogniToy of any color without judgment.”
In addition to featuring a dinosaur voice rather than a distinctly male or female voice, CogniToys tailor the play experience to what each individual child expresses their interests to be. This helps to take preconceived notions out of playtime for a more child-driven learning process from beginning to end.
As early development specialists continue to work on eliminating gender divisions within the toy industry, you can start making an impact within your own family by ensuring that any toys you bring home are educational without being gender specific. Taking toys out of the packaging before giving them to young children can also help to defy gender stereotypes, as often the only difference between a toy for girls in a toy for boys is the branding. Have you had a personal experience with gender neutrality and the toy industry? Do you have a favorite STEM toy that really defies these stereotypes? Let us know! You can leave a comment in the section below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org