At the turn of the 20th century, toys were rarely marketed to different genders. By the 1940s, manufacturers quickly caught on to the idea that wealthier families would buy an entire new set of clothing, toys and other gadgets if the products were marketed differently for both genders. And so the idea of pink for girls and blue for boys was born.
It’s obvious to anyone that boys and girls tend to play with different toys. However, the research suggests that these preferences are not as innate as we might think. There is an abundance of evidence that social factors influence children’s gender-typed toy choices. For example, children are often rewarded for interacting with gender-‘matched’ toys, and their preference for gendered toys is heavily influenced by the preferences and behavior of parents & peers.
Kids start learning gender stereotypes between 18-24 months, they learn by watching us. Studies show that parents perceive newborn girls as delicate & newborn boys as stronger. Mothers of girls tend to view physical play as more risky than mothers of boys.
However, how children play is more important than the toys they play with. Toys are not inherently good or bad. When playing with a gun, you can either be violent & aggressive or simply shooting targets. With a princess the game could be all about her beauty, or she could be the centre of a political intrigue.
Parents can help to challenge these gender stereotypes when toy shopping. Try something like, "You have four trucks already, so how about getting a doll instead?" You can also join in your child's play to further expand the possibilities. You could take on a character role who is all about mixing up the status quo. Maybe your brave knight also loves to bake! Kids play what they see. If they can see it, they can play it — then one day they can be it.
References: Hines & Davis 2018; Goble et al 2012; Etaugh & Liss 1992; Morrongiello & Dawber 2000