Child’s play – 6 ways to challenge gender stereotypes

Small child smiling while driving a toy car in a colourful park. There is a plastic yellow taxi next to him.

While play helps children to try out and develop new skills, gender stereotypes can limit what new types of play they feel encouraged to try, and subsequently what skills and abilities they develop.

You can’t always control outside influences, like what happens in the playground or other environments, but you can actively give kids insight and access to play that goes beyond gendered stereotypes:

1. Notice what you encourage and support

What kind of topics and ideas do you support your children to be interested in – science and nature, languages, drama, visual art, music, technology, geography or history? Consider what the toys and games in your house are teaching your kids – what are they learning to be ‘good at’, who are they learning to be – are they learning carefulness, thoughtfulness and calmness alongside agility and problem solving?

2. Make stereotypes less meaningful

Where possible, try choosing some toys that don’t ‘look’ stereotypically gendered – this helps make gender less meaningful and allows kids to focus on the activity, rather than what’s ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls.’

3. Notice your body language

When your kids play with toys or games that don’t necessarily sit within the stereotypes attached to their gender, check your reaction and be encouraging – it’s easy to forget, so make eye contact, smile, nod and get excited.

4. Notice which family members play with what… and mix it up!

Think about how, and what you played with as a child – is it how you tend to play with kids now? Encourage yourself, your child, and other family members to try new things.

5. Challenge stereotypes while you play

While playing with toys, watching TV or reading try asking questions like, ‘I wonder why we never see Jimmy cooking? He must eat sometimes!’ or ‘Why do the girls always talk about clothes – what else do you think they like doing?’ or ‘I notice he always decides where they go on adventures – what kind of places do you think they’d go if she was the leader sometimes?’.

6. Play-acting

Arrive at the 'tea party' ready to talk about problems that need to be solved or experiments that need to be done. Suggest the action figures take a break and set up a tea party with them and have the dolls rescue the other toys!

Reducing gender stereotypes is about noticing and focussing on similarities and opportunities rather than differences and limitations. Playing alongside children, encouraging a range of activities, and calling out stereotypes helps kids to learn and grow free of limitations.