When you walk into the aisle of a toy section, two things usually happen. First, you might feel a little overwhelmed - there are a whole lot of toys out there. Then, you might find yourself in between two rows of products: one blue, one pink.
Assigning color to gender goes back to the early 1900s, but not in the way you might expect. Back in the day, pink was the color for boys and blue the color for girls. Many people believed that a strong, vibrant color like pink would be much better suited for boys, and girls were given the delicate, soft color of blue.
Things changed throughout the century, and eventually merchandisers and marketing agencies decided on pink for girls and blue for boys, realizing that making clothes, cribs, strollers, and toys more individualized meant they could sell more. A family with a boy and a new baby girl would be encouraged to buy new gendered products rather than use hand-me-downs.
So there you are, standing in the toy aisle with these two colors, not sure where to turn. Does your little one like trucks, or is she more into dolls? The colors are telling you to lean a certain way, but does she have a preference at all?
Research shows that girls and boys like pink and blue toys equally until they're around two years old. So a child isn't born preferring one color or toy to another - she learns to like one more than the other during childhood. As children are introduced to toys and consistently given the same kinds, they're taught to prefer them.
Toys marketed for girls, like dolls and toy kitchens, typically encourage play centered on domestic life, like dressing or doing household chores. Toys marketed for boys, like vehicles and construction toys, typically encourage more varied types of play, like creating a building or winning a race. Things like toy guns and swords are also frequently marketed toward young boys, encouraging more violent play.
In a study done on children's toys, the ones rated most likely to be educational and to develop cognitive skills were neutral or moderately masculine. Toys like shape-sorting games, magnets, and clocks are often marketed toward boys, even though the spatial-temporal skills they help develop are important for all children. That's not to say that dolls and princesses aren't any good; they've actually been found to help young boys with their self-esteem and empathy.
So, should you let your baby play with gendered toys? Sure, but mix it up! Not restricting which toys a child gets gives her more opportunities to develop a wide range of skills and interests. It also gives her room to experiment and avoid falling into stereotypes gendered toys might encourage. Toys that are most strongly gendered might encourage a focus on prettiness or aggression, but toys that are neutral or moderately gendered can be helpful for all children's development. Sooner or later, once your baby has more opinions of her own, she will let you know what kind of toys she wants to play with, making it all the more easy.