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The science of toy giving: Choosing holiday gifts for kids that are fun and promote learning

Published on Psychology Today

With the holiday season in full swing, the toy industry is bustling with moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends buying gifts for their littlest loved ones. Toy buying used to be simple: A nice doll for girls, and a matchbox car for boys. But these days, shopping for kids’ toys can be utterly overwhelming. There are hundreds of products that line the aisles of most toy stores, many of which have flashing lights, play music, and some even talk to you as you walk by. Some products even boast their utility in teaching children new words, musical skills, and even math. It’s enough to make your head spin. With all the options out there and pressure to find the perfect gift, which toys should we choose for our kids? Perhaps research can help.

One of the first things most people do when they go shopping for a child is to think about the child’s gender. It’s hard not to, as a lot of the stores we typically visit for children’s clothes, toys, and other items are sectioned off by whether we are shopping for a girl or a boy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but research suggests that when we shop for girls versus boys, we usually end up buying toys that are highly gender stereotyped, like nurturing toys for girls—dolls, dollhouses, and housewares—and active or competitive toys for boys—like trucks, battle games, and sports equipment (Ruble, Martin, & Berenbaum, 2006). This might sound like no big deal, but research has shown that gender-stereotyped toys can actually bring out gender-stereotyped behaviors. For example, when you give 4-year-olds both boy and girl toys, they all play more actively with the boy toys, regardless of their gender (Maccoby, 1988).

Other research suggests that gendered toys can also affect how children feel about themselves. For example, one study showed that 5-year-old girls who looked at pictures of Barbie dolls (U.S. size 2) felt worse about their bodies and expressed a stronger desire to be thin than girls who looked at pictures of an Emme doll (U.S. size 16) or pictures of no dolls at all (Dittmar, Halliwell, & Ive, 2006). Similarly, girls as young as 3½ associate thin dolls with positive personality traits like “smart,” “happy,” and “has a best friend,” while they associate heavy dolls with negative traits like “sad”, “tired,” and “has no friends,” (Worobey & Worobey, 2014). This isn’t just true for girls; teenage boys who handle impossibly muscular action figures also feel worse about their bodies than boys who handle action figures that have more average body types (Barlett, Harris, Smith, & Bonds-Raacke, 2005).

Although these effects may not necessarily be long-term (Worobey, 2000), and having a Barbie doll or a beefy Batman figurine probably isn’t going to damage your kids for life, with all the countless options we have these days in the toy store, it isn’t a bad idea to take advantage of newer toys that project a healthier message to children about gender. For example, toy companies recently started producing dolls that are more representative of the average female body type. The Lammily doll, for example, looks like Barbie but has more realistic body proportions. There are also a lot of new dolls that portray women as scientists, explorers, doctors, or superheroes, and Lego has a female scientist collection, which is a nice departure from their female-marketed Lego Friends sets that are all saturated in pink and purple. Even Mattel has introduced a new Barbie that comes in three different body shapes (tall, curvy and petite) and a variety of skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles.

Although the take home message here so far seems to be to forgo old-school gender stereotypes when it comes to toys, there are some areas where sticking to old school toys is a good idea. Although it might be tempting to choose one of those new and flashy electronic toys that make fun sounds and is named after some famous genius like Mozart or Einstein, recent research suggests that if your goal is to encourage learning, old school toys might provide the best bang for your buck, especially for babies. For example, one study looked at how parents talk to their 10- to 16-month-olds while playing with different kinds of toys, and reported that the amount of language parents use and the quality of their language is generally lower when they play with electronic toys like a baby cell phone, laptop, or talking farm, than when they play with traditional toys like a shape sorter, a wooden puzzle, or blocks (Sosa, 2016). This is important, as children whose parents talk to them more have a distinct advantage in school over children of parents who spend less time speaking aloud (Hart & Risley, 1995). Flashy new electronic toys seem to keep parents from doing just that—since these toys do all the talking themselves, parents don’t have to, which isn’t the best thing for learning. The same could be said for using apps on a tablet or phone to encourage word learning as opposed to good old fashioned reading to children from storybooks. Indeed, children learn more by exploring themselves than by watching someone (or some device) do something for them (Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke, & Schulz, 2011), and they explore more when they don’t get explicit instructions about how to use a new toy (Sobel & Sommerville, 2010), so this is an area where old school toys might win out.

As a whole, the research I presented here doesn’t suggest that we should stop giving our girls dolls altogether, or that we should stay away from the newest most exciting toys on the market; instead, it suggests that with all the countless options that we have, we can probably afford to be more selective about the kinds of toys we give our kids this holiday season. With so many possibilities, it’s easier than it was 20 years ago to steer clear of toys that carry negative gender stereotypes, and to keep in mind that both boys and girls can get a lot out of active toys that inspire them to engage in behaviors like building, sharing, exploring, or playing actively.

Photo by Craig D/Flickr


Barlett, C., Harris, R., Smith, S., & Bonds-Raacke, J. (2005). Action figures and men. Sex Roles, 53, 877-885.

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Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5-to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42, 283-292.

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Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Kittredge, A. K., & Klahr, D. (2016). Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 177-182.

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