Girls like cooking and dress-up. Boys like sports and construction. That’s the message you’ll get from most toy stores when you stroll through aisles of hot pink Barbies and dark blue Nerf Blasters.
“But it’s not the whole story,” says Maureen O’Brien, a developmental psychologist who has consulted for Mattel. In fact, until age 3 or 4, most children don’t show any gendered toy preferences: boys are fine donning flamboyant costumes (which helps them experiment with creativity), and girls enjoy assembling building blocks (which helps them develop spatial skills). It’s not until elementary school that the stereotypes pushed by parents, peers and marketers start to take hold: “That toy isn’t for you. It’s for him.”
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Or it was. Forty years after Title IX, toy companies are finally getting serious about equal-opportunity playthings. In the past six months, Mattel debuted Mega Bloks Barbie construction sets, and Hasbro previewed a line of Nerf Rebelle crossbows for girls and an Easy-Bake oven with more-masculine hues. For now at least, all these new-toy color schemes remain gendered: pinkish for girls, bluish for boys. Nevertheless “we’re at an important transition period,” says Deborah Best, who lectures at Wake Forest University on how play affects development.
Psychological benefits abound. Getting older girls to engage with construction toys can help ignite an interest in technology or engineering, fields in which men hold the lion’s share of degrees. And playthings that destigmatize certain hobbies — like writing and cooking — from being “feminine” can help boys embrace their creative passions instead of joining a sports team by default.
For toy companies, however, the boost is in the bottom line. “We’re reaching an entirely new market,” says Michael McNally, brand-relations director at Lego, whose feminine Friends sets launched in January 2012. Since then, the company has nearly tripled its sales to girls.
MORE: How Children’s Toys Are Getting a Gender-Neutral Makeover