Friday, November 09, 2007

Buying feminist (or feminist friendly) toys...

This post, and the comments in it, combined with the unusually large number of birthdays that I purchase gifts for in November and December have reminded me that it's about time to start my annual holiday buying. I imagine that there are others who, like me, have young children that they buy gifts for. Buying gifts for children can be really tough (even when you're not worried about lead paint and GBL!), especially if you want to provide a positive influence, or are trying to subvert, shall we say, stereotypical programming.

I have a young niece that I'm buying gifts for. Every time I purchase gifts for her, I have to weigh a bunch of conflicting issues. How cool do I think the toy is? How much does it oppose or reinforce traditional gender stereotypes? How likely are her parents to object to the gift? How much is she going to like it? How quickly will it break or will she get tired of it? How much does it cost?

Ideally, I want to be able to supply her with toys that her mother won't just throw away, that she'll find interesting and fun, that won't break right away, and that subvert (or at least don't reinforce) what I think are harmful gender stereotypes. I refuse to buy things like fake kitchen stuff, or toy vaccuum cleaners, etc. I refuse to buy princess themed stuff.

Instead of buying her traditionally "girl" things, I try to find toys that are as gender-neutral as possible, or that are traditionally "boy" toys. It can be surprisingly difficult to find gender-neutral toys, though. It used to be that most Lego sets were fairly neutral, but looking through the toy aisle recently, I was struck by how completely gendered they've become. Gone are most of the city themed sets that included both male and female figures. Instead, there are dozens of sets featuring huge robots and skeletons fighting dragons and Star Wars stuff. Almost every figure in the sets are men. Weird. Still, she's a little young for Lego right now, so that's not a problem yet.

Right now, she's on a kick where she loves robots. As a big robot fan myself, I'm okay with that. I think I did okay last year- I got her a log cabin building kit (Lincoln logs, basically) that came with a little train and some farm animals. I got her a Mr. Potatohead with extra themed pieces... a princess, a mermaid, and a fashion model (gender bending potatohead was a big hit), and a bunch of Winnie the Pooh figures, among other things.

Still, she's getting older and she's eventually going to start being interested in things like Bratz dolls and Barbie and pink stuff. So, here's where you, gentle reader, come in. What can I do when that happens? What kinds of things do other people get for their children, or their nieces/nephews, etc? What kinds of gifts do you give to the young people in your life? What kinds of positive role-models are there for young girls?

As it stands, I'm going to go look for some awesome robots for us her to play with.


Stupendousness said...

Unfortunately both of my nieces (5 and 3 1/2) are into princess and stereotypically girly stuff big time. So I'm always afraid that any gift I buy them will be tossed aside because it's not a doll, princess dress, or "play" makeup.

But they do like coloring, drawing, painting, etc, so I like to get them coloring books (avoiding the Barbie ones) and crafty things. I've given them playdough, a rubber stamp set, and also a thing that twists beads onto their hair (I have no idea if they've used it).

I also like the make-believe doctor/veterinarian kits. I've found several that are gender neutral and pretty damn cool.

I look forward to getting them science stuff one day, like a chemistry set, but that sort of thing is for much older children. Until then fun books about science are the way to go. I've also seen 3D puzzle sets for dinosaurs and other animals that have big pieces for children 3+. Heh, I recall my younger niece being fascinated by a prism once.

My nieces also love dancing and music, and it doesn't really matter what type of music it is. They will bang their hands to Rammstein.

About the fake kitchen -- I LOVED kitchen sets when I was young because I liked the mechanical aspects of them. I liked opening and closing the doors and organizing things. I didn't actually do any make-believe play as a housewife. In fact, I think I usually liked to pretend that I was all grown up and living by myself in my own apartment. But then kitchen play sets in the 80s weren't so feminized.

There's a company here in Texas called Whole Earth Provision Company that sells wooden play sets. They had one with all types of food: toast, hot dogs, fruit, veggies, etc. all made out of wood and painted to look like the real thing. I thought it was cool and completely gender-neutral, including the packaging. Are there small toy stores in your area that carry stuff you wouldn't find at Toys R Us?

I know there's more I can't remember.

I don't think I'll be buying presents this year for anyone (need to save money, and I always have a hard time selecting presents).

My nieces already get tons of toys from all the families, and they're kind of spoiled. I'd rather give my sister a gift card to take them all out to eat or to the zoo or museum.

Stupendousness said...

As if I haven't said enough...

This brings to mind something I've been debating with myself. IF I ever adopt a child, my preference would be to tell my family to not buy toys for him/her.

Maybe that makes me a controlling bitch, but I really wouldn't want to be inundated with highly gendered toys. I would take them away, and my family's money would have been wasted.

But of course my family members' feelings would be hurt. I doubt they would understand my position, and they would probably give me a lot of crap for it.

assembling words to armory, she waits... said...

stuffed animals (perhaps a stuffed robot or those robo-pets? EH?) are pretty cool, and you can find non-gendered ones fairly easily. also, anything that's crafty and is actually building something is pretty sweet. there are these new crayola markers and paper you can get that will only draw on the paper, so there's virtually no mess. (always a hit with the 'rents, lol.) or how about viewfinders, kaleidoscopes, etch-a-sketches or lite brite kinda stuff? having grown up with five little brothers, we all had our own toys, but these were things my parents could buy that we shared. i also agree that the play stove/food kinda stuff was equally shared by my brothers and me. (we fought over play doh constantly!) and my final thing to get her would be my fave: books. getting her a few cool books and actually sitting and sharing a story time with her is always a great idea. growing up, i'd've LOVED it if one of my uncles had taken the time to sit down with me and read.

Anonymous said...

Books. Always books. There are some horribly gendered books out there, but there are so many good ones that it doesn't matter. As an added bonus, no contribution to the explosion of plastic stuff. If the kid's not a reader—and I don't know any who aren't, fortunately—I'd buy age-appropriate blocks, wooden or Lego. Not sets, just the generic tubs o' blocks.

EG said...

I like buying kids books as well, but I must say the most successful gifts I ever gave were a stuffed Elmo (which I actually had to go to another city to get, as the city the kid lived in was out of them) for a little girl of my acquaintance who loved Elmo (I can't stand him myself, but hey, it wasn't for me) and a big set of pirate costumes and accoutrements for two sisters I know. They loved the pirate stuff. I always veer toward stuff that encourages make-believe play, and at that age, the stuff for boys will fit girls perfectly.

Jaclyn said...

I tend to think about function as opposed to form. So, if the toy will stimulate imagination/creativity/activity/expression, etc. (in other words, if it's an active as opposed to passive toy), I'll overlook a certain amount of pinkness. One of the best things I ever gave my niece was a pair of Barbie rollerskates (the over the shoe kind for little kids). She wanted rollerskates so bad, and she loves loves loves Barbie, and I couldn't find any that weren't gendered, so I sucked up the branding. You have to figure out where your compromise point is.

That said, I take it as my responsibility to be the Aunt Who Buys Alternative and/or Educational Toys. Most of my sisters love that. One of them really doesn't. Not surprisingly, she's the one with the Barbie-loving daughter.

brandann said...

ack! it is a trick to be a good influence in toy buying! i think it's awesome that you are so conscious of it. i wish more of my family were, or more understanding of my choices for my five year old daughter.

i also have been called a controlling bitch b/c i don't allow her to play w/ barbie or bratz, (who the hell wants to be known as a "brat"? i have never understood) and roll my eyes whenever the princesses rear their heads...and despite my best efforts, my kid genuitnely likes all things pink, and likes to play w/ the kitchen toys, which i don't mind so much b/c she helps me, and our four male roommates w/ the cooking. she is a my little pony freak, and i am ok w/ that...

but she also loves the "boy toys". she is already a video game fan, likes transformers and legos. also, the only cabbage patch doll she has is a pretty impressive hitman as i understand it...

as far as neutral gifts, i am a huge fan of art supplies. if you want to be the cool uncle and can afford it, costco and a few other places have these cool easles made of solid wood, w/ tons of drawers for paint, chalk, crayons, etc. it has a dry erase board on one side, and a chalkboard, and a place for everything! comes w/ a huge roll of paper...smaller things like mod podge w/ magazines and stickers are great too! i tend to avoid coloring books b/c i think it inhibits creativity...but like i said...controlling bitch, right?

good luck! i can also use some suggestions...since i too will be holiday shopping...

Jaclyn said...

Oh, there's an AWESOME series of books called the ANTI-Coloring Books -- you should look into them if you hate how limiting coloring books are. They give creative jumping-off points for unstructured art. Check out these cool sample pages...

Stupendousness said...

I never felt that my imagination was suppressed by having coloring books.

In fact, I was always experimental in the way I colored. I would color in all sorts of things: scales, fur patterns, patterns (blocks/stripes/flowers), and landscapes. I would also add to the pre-drawn forms: extra legs, different clothings, etc. One of my favorite things was to color figures differently on the left and right side. Of course a common theme was good vs evil. For instance, I would add a horn and big pointy tail on one side, with an angelic-like wing on the other.

Coloring books also taught me how to draw certain things. I'm no great artist, and there are certainly lots of other, better books out there to teach one how to draw, but at a very young age, coloring books were helpful (and cheap) in that respect. And again, I would add on to the coloring book drawings, so they provided a nice starting-point.

And sometimes it was very relaxing to just color in the lines and let my mind wander.

I seriously doubt that children with a coloring book only just use that book and don't do any original creative work. My nieces will draw on anything and everything.

I think it's understandable if a child is only coloring within the lines and using the expected colors (i.e., yellow for the sun, green for the grass), but then that's where we, as adults, step in and tell the child it's okay to go outside the box (literally and figuratively).
Students in art classes all the way through college need outside inspiration, and they need guidance from their teachers too. I remember my 8th grade art teacher telling me it's okay to not be so literal, if that's what I wanted.

Jaclyn said...

Here's that url (don't know why my link didn't work):

Also, I recommend, for awesome, sometimes even cheap toys made by independent crafters and artists (they have tons of stuff for adults, too!)

Wayfarer Scientista said...

I give sciency niece got a big magnifying glass for her 4th birthday which she loves to drag along with her on every trip. I am excited about her & her brother getting older so I can get them some of the kits for exploring and understanding their world better without worrying about them swallowing the small parts. Oh and books - I often give books especially ones I pick up while traveling and represent different places.

Katy said...

I used to work at an educational toy store ( and they have some pretty good stuff that's gender neutral, educational and crafty. Their website has improved of late and no longer divides into gender categories (as far as I can tell). Unfortunately there are some Bratz type dolls there (how that's educational I have no idea!).

I always loved Lego, craft supplies and anything else that I could build or read. The books that come with activities from Klutz press or Kids Can Press were favourites.

The gift I could never understand was the play doh stuff that smelled like food. Seriously! Kids want to eat the stuff to begin with, why make it smell like cookies and then give it to them?

Derek said...

Hey again, Roy! Damn, it's good to be back!

Anyway, I have a little sister who is nine-years-old and she's actually really into gendered toys, unfortunately. Thankfully enough, though, she's also into other things. Usually I buy her books or comics (she LOVES Calvin & Hobbes), but she's also into video games, so that helps a lot, too.

It really does depend on the age, too, though. Also, that's really unfortunate about Lego. I haven't been in stores that sell it for some time, but thinking back I definitely saw it heading that way.

I probably wasn't of much help, but if I think of anything else I'll be sure to let you know. Best of luck!

brandann said...

thank-you! i can't get to open, but i tracked it down through it! great suggestion! i do understand that coloring books don't = bad...i just tend to avoid them...we find plenty of ways to be creative w/o them

The Snobographer said...

Well I'm sure you'll find her a nice robot toy and that will be fine for right now.
The MOMA online store has some good, gender-neutral, intellectually stimulating toys. They can be a bit pricey though. has quite an extensive toy catalog too.
You don't say exactly how old your niece is. She may be at a point where, if she's never shown an interest in Barbie so far, she may never will.
I think Barbie-type-toys, when offered in good feminist faith, are okay. If you can steer clear of the excessive pink and the Disney Princess stuff. A non-pink Barbie house, far superior to the pink plastic thing found in stores, can be made easily and inexpensively with an old set of bookshelves. It's actually a really fun project.
Dolls like Barbie encourage girls to fantasize about their futures as independent adults. Skip the princessy-froo-froo and that's totally feminist friendly.
I don't know if they still make "Happy To Be Me" dolls, but their body proportions aren't as insane as Barbie's.

Do NOT buy Bratz! Ever! I don't know what those things are supposed to look like.

cme said...

I may be too late for this round of gifting, but I have some suggestions:

* Like several other people, I try for books, stuffed animals, building toys or craft supplies.

* Board or card games that you're willing to play with them, or puzzles (not jigsaw puzzles, 3d puzzles- the-take-apart-and-put-back-together kind) If you go looking at the sort of store that sells high-quality desk tosy for adult,s you can often find cool things kids can do too. For the really young kids, you can get the "move things back and forth" puzzles that a lot of doctors' offices have these days (I got one from Ikea for $7).

* I suggest American Science and Surplus ( ) as a place with great service that sells lots of cheap, strange things. They have weird toys, puzzles, parts and kits, tools, and lab-quality scientific equipment (for you, or for when the kids get old enough for it).

* Music might work, and it doesn't even have to be childish music, necessarily.

* As a kid, the gifts I loved most were ones that made me feel more grown-up. Getting art supplies that were decent quality instead of little-kid grade, for instance, or books that were slightly "older" than the ones I had been reading, or the gift of an outing or a shopping trip with that friend or relative and *without* my parents, or the afore-mentioned music. I think one of the keys here is that these gifts helped me develop preferences and opinions that were my own, not just inherited from my family. (One year a family friend took me to the Ritz for High Tea, and that was So Cool. I also had one aunt who was was presciently psychic- she'd get me things that seemed strange or unappealing on opening that I shortly realized were *wonderful*- many of those were the gifts that made me feel like I was growing up.) Obviously, this works better with kids who are at least in grade school.