One For Girls, The Rest For Boys: Is Gender-Specific Toy Marketing Still A Thing?

When my youngest cousin was born, I went to Wal-Mart to find some nice baby clothes for her. Assuming most of my relatives would buy her something pink and frilly, and being the sucker for superhero movies that I was, I strove to find something geeky for the little one. The minute I stepped into the clothes section, I was forced into two streams: clothes for girls and clothes for boys. I took a chance and explored the first section, hoping I would find what I sought. I didn’t. What I pulled off the racks was a purple tutu dress with a sparkly purple Batman logo and a similar Superman dress in pink. There isn’t enough space in this post to begin discussing the absence of female superheroes. As expected, the boys’ section was littered with Superman and Batman onesies in their original colours. (If you’re wondering what I ended up buying, it was the blue Superman onesie.)

What this experience revealed to me was that girls get the pink and purple versions of the same products that are marketed to boys in their original versions and colours. Just as it does in the clothing world, the same type of gendered marketing has held true for the toy world for years. I’ll admit, that clothing incident occurred more than three years ago now. However, while significant changes have occurred over the past few years in the way toys are being marketed to children – largely in response to public outrage and campaigns – products are still being segregated into “boy” and “girl” streams.

Take Toys ‘R’ Us online, for instance. I did a little digging into the Action Figures section of the website, since action figures or dolls are among most strictly divided for boys and girls. Way down below the Category, Age, Brand and Character/Theme filters was the option to filter by Gender. Just looking at the first few pages, there was already a distinct difference between the two filters. The “girl” filter left me with 245 items, which were mainly plush toys and collectible figures, like Big Hero 6, Minions, Finding Nemo and Sailor Moon. For a moment I was surprised to see a LEGO set that was not the controversial girl-targeting LEGO Friends. But a closer look revealed that it was a pet shop set.

Where was everything else? The “girl” filter eliminated all Star Wars toys and LEGO Star Wars building sets, including, oddly, a set for the female character Rey’s speeder. All I was left with was a Captain Phasma costume, a sticker collection and a handful of Star Wars-related books. Where were all the Star Wars sets for which LEGO is so well known? Once I flipped off the “girl” filter and turned on the “boy” one, they popped back up. Compared to the 245 items “for girls,” the “boy” filter gave me 1,257 items in this section. Without any filters the total number of items in the Action Figures section was 1,272, so there was some overlap – but not enough. According to the Gender filters, everything from an RC BB-8 toy to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dolls and a Batman figure were only for boys.

The problem is that there’s no real reason to separate toys this way. The toys themselves are perfect for all kids, but splitting them up leads to kids missing out on having a variety of entertaining and educational experiences through play.

This forcing of toys into assigned gender boxes has spurred the creation of many campaigns calling for the opportunity for children to choose their toys freely. One of these campaigns is UK-based Let Toys Be Toys, which began in 2012. Since then, it has gotten 14 major UK and Ireland retailers to get rid of gender-specific signs around toys. Among these retailers is the UK website for Toys ‘R’ Us, which, unlike the Canadian site and the U.S. site (which actually has sections called “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys” on the home page), removed its gender filters. Last summer, Target in the U.S. also decided to remove “boy toy” and “girl toy” signs from its stores.

When we think about “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” signs, we often worry about how they’ll exclude girls from various play experiences. What may get overlooked is the effect it can also have on boys. Boys who are presented with action figures, trucks and plastic weapons in a section cordoned off from kitchen sets, dolls and other toys people consider to be “too girly” will never try to explore that equally rewarding area of nurturing and compassion. They, too, will miss out purely out of their, or more likely their parents’ fear of liking something associated with femininity.

Where gender-stereotyped toy marketing also especially becomes problematic – and it’s an area that many wrongly ignore or believe doesn’t exist – is when kids don’t identify with a specific gender, or don’t fit into the gender binary. Trying to pigeonhole them into traditional genders with signs exclusively for boys or girls has the dangerous potential to make them feel like there is something wrong with them for not wanting either option, or wanting both.

A large part of marketing toys specifically to boys and girls is about making more money. If a parent has a girl and a boy, they may end up buying the “girl version” as well as the “boy version” of a toy. And as the Washington Post pointed out recently, retailers try to profit from gender-specific toys. A pink “girl version” of a toy can cost almost double that of the exact same toy in a colour targeting boys. The Post gave the example of Radio Flyer’s red scooter, which cost $24.99, while the exact same scooter in pink cost a whopping $49.99.

Creating a Cross-Category Juggernaut, a new study by the research and consulting firm Smarty Pants, suggests there are also benefits to marketing products as gender-neutral, however. According to the study, the most powerful and popular properties in 2015 were gender-neutral. These included Minions, LEGO, Mario and Minecraft. However, LEGO isn’t entirely gender-neutral in its marketing to children, as is evident by LEGO Friends. Not only does the girl-focused line feature characters and settings that exist in another imaginary world separate from most of LEGO’s other lines, but the pieces also literally don’t connect with regular LEGO pieces. This separation can give girls the unfortunate impression that they’re meant to play in a separate corner, away from the boys’ toys.

In a perfect world, instead of trying to market toys specifically to girls and boys, toymakers would focus on creating the best possible play experience for children. While there is much to criticize about toy retailers’ segregation of toys into genders, they are making small advances. Some of these include retailers removing signs. And while I pointed out Toys ‘R’ Us’s gender filters in the Action Figures category, its selection for boys in the Dolls & Playsets category includes Baby Amaze dolls, Monster High figures and a fashion puppy carrier, which is basically a purse. However, just as boys had more options in Action Figures, girls have many more options in the Dolls & Playsets category. Until the options for play available to all children are equal and varied, I will continue to scrutinize those gender filters.




Look Kool: Delivering the Ontario Math Curriculum in a Package of Zany Comedy and Hands-On Learning




Look Kool‘s host Hamza Haq with the show’s investigators, Han Ru and Stefano. Credit: Look Kool/Facebook


As a child, I loved shapes, and as a child who couldn’t draw particularly well, I spent a lot of time using shapes, both wooden blocks and traced on paper, to make structures and new images.


A tangram rabbit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of my favourite activities was a tangram, a puzzle made of seven shapes that could be rearranged to create a seemingly endless variety of new images, which included everything from a large trapezoid to a house, or – my personal favourite – a rabbit.

This same love of shapes re-emerged when I first tuned in to TVO Kids to watch the Apartment 11-produced Look Kool, a fun show that, in a single 22-minute episode, teaches kids everything they could want to know about a single aspect of geometry, whether it’s cones, domes, symmetry, sports projectiles…you name it. Look Kool makes geometry easy to understand by finding it in everyday objects and deconstructing shapes and figures to find others within.

Every moment in the show can teach viewers something about geometry. Even the words “Look” and “Kool” in the title sequence itself appear on screen as reflections of each other (symmetry!). Look Kool has the added bonus of a delightfully wacky host, Hamza, who uses songs, challenges and investigations to teach viewers new and exciting things about geometry. There’s definitely a lot to learn here, but are the educational components of Look Kool relevant to the Ontario curriculum? I took a closer look at both to find out. Since Look Kool’s target audience is children between the ages of six and nine, I compared the lessons it teaches to the Geometry and Spatial Sense sections for Grades 1-4 in the Ontario Math Curriculum.

In each episode of Look Kool, there are several components, all of which serve different functions in helping kids learn about geometry. As I mentioned above, Look Kool finds geometry in objects all around us. This is done in the “Investigation” segment, which is carried out by real kid investigators, Han Ru and Stefano. Hamza presents them with the geometric shape or figure and sends them off to find more real-world examples of it. The kids send in a picture and Hamza, with the help of his trusty Mind’s Eye Computer, teaches us about the reason certain objects are built in certain geometric shapes. This segment is especially relevant to the expectation for Grade 1 students to “describe similarities and differences between an everyday object and a three-dimensional figure,” as well as Grade 4 expectations to “identify and describe prisms and pyramids, and classify them by their geometric properties (i.e., shape of faces, number of edges, number of vertices), using concrete materials.”

The investigators do exactly that by examining objects around them and using their knowledge of a 3D figure to determine if the object possesses those properties. For example, in the Cones episode, Han Ru and Stefano see pylons, pinecones and roofs and determine they are cones by discussing whether they have circular bases leading up to a point. When they are wrong about a roof, Hamza explains why: its base is not a circle, but rather an octagon, making it an octagonal pyramid. This clarification, in turn, demonstrates the specific Grade 3 expectation to “describe and name prisms and pyramids by the shape of their base.” Small details like this are proof that Look Kool doesn’t waste a single learning opportunity.

Another important part of each episode is the “Deconstruct,” in which Hamza takes a closer look at the geometric figure of the day and identifies its components. For instance, in the Cubes episode, Hamza takes apart a 3D graphic of a Rubik’s cube to reveal that it’s actually composed of six squares. This kind of deconstruction is a perfect example of a recurring curriculum expectation for Grades 1-4: “classifying three-dimensional figures by geometric properties (number and shape of faces).”

This is later combined with Grade 4 student expectations of learning to “construct skeletons of three-dimensional figures, using a variety of tools (e.g., straws and modelling clay, toothpicks and marshmallows, Polydrons),” and to “construct three-dimensional figures using two-dimensional shapes,” when the investigators tape together cubes using multiple patterns of cardboard squares. In the Domes episode they also advance to connecting sticks to make 2D triangles, pentagons and hexagons, which in turn connect to make a dome. These are both part of the “Hands-On” segment.

There’s also my personal favourite: the “Brain Bender” segment, which empowers kids to solve math problems using everyday items. This segment, above all, fits the overall Mathematical Process Expectations for Grades 1-3 students to “create basic representations of simple mathematical ideas (e.g., using concrete materials; physical actions, such as hopping or clapping; pictures; numbers; diagrams; invented symbols), make connections among them, and apply them to solve problems.” In the episode on cones, the kids are given double-scoop ice cream cones and have to figure out how many combinations of two scoops they can make with five different flavours (I learned through the show that the answer is 15). Once the kids work out a method, Hamza explains in more detail how to solve the problems. These situations are used to show how math can be used in real-world situations. Of course, in the real world it would be unwise to try to eat 15 two-scoop ice cream cones!

Specific episodes also adhere to specific aspects of the curriculum. For instance, the Symmetry episode covers most of the Grade 1-4 expectations relating to symmetry. They include creating and describing symmetrical designs, and locating and drawing lines of symmetry in 2D shapes. In the episode, kids not only work in teams to draw the two halves of a symmetrical image in the “Challenge” segment, but the investigators also find symmetry or a lack thereof in the real world, and Hamza shows us different lines of symmetry (e.g., vertical, horizontal, diagonal on a checkerboard, and multiple lines on a flower).

By now it’s clear that Look Kool is a prime example of an Ontario curriculum-friendly show. But there’s more. It not only puts geometry into perspective by getting real kids to investigate the world around them, but also goes beyond expectations to explain other unique properties of figures and their uses throughout history.

Look Kool will teach children about 2D and 3D shapes, but along the way, they might also learn about Archimedes’ method for finding the volume of a cylinder and a cone, and a thing or two about Pablo Picasso’s Cubism period. There’s something “kool” to discover and learn around every edge of this three-dimensional show.