What comes to mind when we have to buy a birthday gift for our child’s friend? For many parents (even if they are ECEC professionals), the first instinct is to make a decision based on the child’s gender, and decide if they should buy a doll or a toy-truck. Why is it so quick to categorize children’s interests relying only on their gender? Because our perceptions of children’s preferences are usually right – research has shown that children develop preferences for gender-typed toys from a very early age , so it is natural for adults to offer young children who already have these preferences shaped, toys that they prefer more, when given a choice.
Color as a significant factor for toy preference
Small children learn by observation, and also from a young age by participation. Their preference when it comes to toys and playing changes through the toys they have in their homes and ECEC environment, but also through the content they see in TV and other media.
Toy producers are constantly working on profit maximization. A study in 2012  examined one of the largest toy producers in the world to discover that they strongly categorize toys with certain colours to be more appealing to specific gender, because it sells better. What’s concerning here is that researchers revealed that the toys which are socially categorized as “gender neutral”, and put in the “both boys and girls” section of the store resemble toys for boys, because they are made with black, brown and red colours, which are more appealing to male users. So even if toys are meant to be for all children, it is common to label them for boys, and limit the choices for girls, whose preferences are being modelled by pink-related colours.
It turns out boys are in a better position when it comes to education through play with toys. A study  that examined the educational value of particular toys showed that the toys boys usually play with are more educational in terms of providing information, developing construction and literacy skills. But even if the educational value is higher, boys are also losing because of this toy division. They don’t have as many opportunities to learn about the value of caring or housework as girls – dolls, strollers or toy vacuum cleaners are mostly pink. Moreover, adults sometimes criticize boys for playing with “girly toys”. So, boys tend to overlook these kinds of toys and the activities connected to them. Therefore, it is important to show children that regardless of their toys’ colour, all toys are suitable for everyone, to provide them with equal learning opportunities.
Gender representation in books
Books are often considered gender neutral but they are not so equal when we focus on the roles and gender of the characters we see there. How often a central character who is in control is a man or a boy? How often a female role is a sidekick, or a caregiver of some sort? It would be very important if every ECEC professional reviewed classroom libraries focusing on this particular aspect.
A study  has shown that gender representation in children’s books when it comes to leading characters is showing significant gender inequality. Only 31% of children’s books have female main characters and when the story is animal related only 7.5%. Female characters are often featured in books in the roles of sidekicks, victims needing help, or some kind of caregivers. The trend of male-oriented writing remains strong when children go to school and we can see it in textbooks, which turns out to have a great influence on girls’ development. It is worth mentioning here a study that found that girls who read about female scientists in textbooks tend to do better in science classes themselves .
Female representation in books is an important factor when it comes to giving everyone learning opportunities. So, when choosing a reading for children, let’s pay attention to female representation in characters and also to the roles they portray.
It may seem obvious, but it is still a very important tip! Most of all, adults need to stop labelling toys for specific genders by telling boys not to play with dolls and pots or girls to leave toy trucks and bricks for boys. For ECEC professionals, it is a duty to offer children equal educational opportunities, and to not perpetuate specific social roles in the earliest years of life. The longer we try our best to give children a choice when it comes to developing interests, the more open-minded they stay to try new things.
Let’s remember that vacuum cleaners for adults are not pink so it’s not the object that’s feminine, it’s only the colour of the toy. The same case is for cars – grown-up women can drive them as well as men. Let’s stop thinking about the colours of toys, their advertisements, and focus on how to do our best to diversify every child’s access to toys that we find valuable for their development. In addition, let’s not forget that all children are entitled to all colours. We need to stop thinking about pink as a colour for girls and blue – for boys.
 Todd, B. K., Barry, J. A., & Thommessen, S. A. (2017). Preferences for ‘gender‐typed’ toys in boys and girls aged 9 to 32 months. Infant and Child Development, 26(3), e1986.
 Auster, C.J., Mansbach, C.S. The Gender Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website. Sex Roles, 67, 375–388 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0177-8
 Becky Francis (2010) Gender, toys and learning, Oxford Review of Education, 36(3), 325–344, DOI: 10.1080/03054981003732278
 McCabe, J., Fairchild, E., Grauerholz, L., Pescosolido, B. A., & Tope, D. (2011). Gender in twentieth-century children’s books: Patterns of disparity in titles and central characters. Gender & Society, 25(2), 197–226.
 Good, J. J., Woodzicka, J. A., & Wingfield, L. C. (2010). The effects of gender stereotypic and counter-stereotypic textbook images on science performance. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(2), 132–147.
This post was written by Magdalena Woźniak-Frymus from Comenius Foundation for Child Development.