Introducing : Let Toys Be Toys
Let Toys Be Toys is a campaign asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. They’ve taken on some of the UK’s biggest retailers and publishers and have achieved some incredible results and influenced lots of changes. There’s still lots to do though!
Tessa Trabue, lives in East London with her wife and eight year-old child. She joined Let Toys Be Toys in February 2013 after being fed up with seeing gendered signs in toy stores and on children’s books. When her son insisted that he couldn’t have a magazine he wanted because the sign on the shelf said it was for girls, she was prompted to act, and contacted the campaign to see if she could help.
Let Toys Be Toys grew out of a thread on the parents’ online message board Mumsnet. Someone started a topic complaining about gendered marketing, and many members joined the conversation, discussing how fed up they were by seeing the ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs in toy shops and departments. A few decided to form a group and do something about it, and the Let Toys Be Toys campaign was born. Within a few weeks the group had carried out a shops survey to discover the extent of gendered signs within stores, and garnered a lot of media attention.
Why does it matter?
‘Girls’ and ‘boys’ signs limit children’s choices by telling them which toys they can or should play with, and, by the same token, which toys are off limits. Along with gendered signs comes stereotyping about what boys and girls are supposedly interested in; toys labelled for girls are often pink and have a domestic, caring or appearance-based theme while toys labelled for boys are often blue and have action, adventure, transport or science themes.
Childhood is a time for exploring interests and expanding the imagination. Play is an important part of this, and a crucial way in which children learn all kinds of new skills. When a sign tells a child that a toy is not for them, this shuts off a child’s opportunity to explore different ways of playing, and potentially gaining a new skill or interest. Later on, this may play a part in a child deciding not to pursue a subject, or even a career, because they may not feel it is for them – this could be a contributing factor to the low numbers of women taking up careers in STEM areas, for instance.
What about children not playing with toys perceived for their gender and this resulting in bullying from other children?
Children are keen to fit in with their peers. Gender stereotypes can lead to bullying and ‘gender policing’ from other children. This can occur when a child commits a ‘social transgression’ by choosing a toy that is outside of what is perceived as ‘normal’ for their gender, and other children tease or bully them about this. We hear stories about boys who are bullied for choosing to play with dolls or prams, and about girls bullied for liking superheroes. By removing these signs, which can often be read like ‘rules’ by children, we believe children will feel free to follow their interests and imaginations and choose a toy that genuinely interests them, thus breaking down some of the existing stereotypes.
What role do schools have in taking down the barriers and removing stereotypes?
Schools have an important role to play in making sure that gender stereotypes are not perpetuated by other children, or even by teachers in the classroom (i.e. by asking for ‘strong boys’ to move tables, or by reinforcing differences by lining boys and girls up separately). Teachers and support staff should be trained to challenge stereotypes in a supportive, educational way whenever these come up. Let Toys Be Toys has worked in collaboration with teachers and parents to put together information and resources on these topics for schools, and classroom exercises that teachers can use to facilitate fruitful discussion and learning around gender stereotypes – for more information please see our website.
How is the organisation made up?
The Let Toys Be Toys team is made up entirely of unpaid volunteers – we fit our campaigning around our families, jobs and other commitments. The campaigners are based all around the UK, and we “meet” and organise the campaign wholly over social media. None of us had met in person until one of our first meetings with retailers, when the campaign had already been going for over six months, and there are still some campaigners who have not met each other in real life. There is a small core that has been involved from the start, and others have joined and left (and sometimes rejoined) as other commitments allow. So far it has worked amazingly well!
What have you been up to since you launched?
Thirteen major UK retailers have responded to Let Toys Be Toys and agreed to take the gendered signs down in their stores, including Toys R Us, Boots, and Debenhams. Some, like The Entertainer toy store, have been replacing the gendered signs with more useful signs indicating type of toy, like ‘construction’, ‘arts and crafts’, and ‘games and puzzles’, and have great inclusive signage showing pictures of boys and girls playing together. We’ve been really pleased with the positive response to the campaign and the changes seen in many stores.
On World Book Day 2014, we launched the Let Books Be Books campaign in response to the many tweets and emails we received raising concerns about the gendered labels on children’s books, such as Buster Books ’The Brilliant Boys Colouring Book’ and the ‘The Gorgeous Girls Colouring Book’. The response to the campaign was immediate and very positive, with Usborne Books and Parragon Books both agreeing to discontinue publishing gendered titles, and Katy Guest, Independent on Sunday Literary Editor, and Waterstones book store coming out in support of the campaign. Many high profile authors, such as Joanne Harris, Malorie Blackman, Anne Fine, and Neil Gaiman have come out in support of the campaign, and to date seven children’s book publishers have agreed to stop publishing titles with these labels in them, and let books be books.
“Childhood is a time for exploring interests and expanding the imagination”
Who still has work to do?
WHSmiths still has ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs up in several of their stores, and also stock many children’s books with gendered titles – we get contacted about these by supporters regularly. However, despite our many emails and tweets to them, they have yet to get back to us with a direct reply. On the books front, we are still waiting for Buster Books and Igloo Books to respond to our petition, letters and many tweets – both of these publishers have large numbers of gendered titles in their catalogues.
We started our Toymark award scheme to recognise good practice for retailers and booksellers selling their merchandise in an inclusive way. We’ve awarded over 30 stores to date, and our list includes the wonderful bookseller Letterbox Library, which has been selling diverse and inclusive children’s books for over 30 years.
How can people support your work?
Our campaign could not continue to exist without the help of all our supporters. People can support us by signing our #LetToysBeToys and #LetBooksBeBooks petitions, which can be found at on the Change.org website. They can also support us on social media by following us on Twitter at @LetToysBeToys and liking our Facebook page. Please visit our website at www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk for more ways of getting involved.
People can also support our campaign by purchasing products from the Let Toys Be Toys shop on our website. We have a variety of fun items for sale, ranging from mugs and t-shirts to coasters, tote bags and baby gros, and Let Toys Be Toys receives a small percentage of each sale, which helps with campaigning costs.
What does 2015 have in store for the campaign?
In 2015, as well as continuing with our existing campaigns, we’ll be expanding our work to look at the toys themselves, and questioning manufacturers on gendered labels, colour coding, pictures and descriptions on the packaging and products.
“Schools have an important role to play in making sure that gender stereotypes are not perpetuated by other children.”