Playing to win

I mentioned last week that Liz Truss had talked about trying to do something about gender-based marketing of toys. At the risk of sounding like a conservative-with-a-small-c, it really shouldn’t be necessary for the government to interfere with this – manufacturers should be listening to parents. I haven’t met anyone who genuinely thinks girls are only interested in pink things, dolls, kittens and cupcakes, while boys run around shrieking and playing football, wearing only blue. So why is so much still geared towards that?

If you’re interested on more about this, there’s a great blog posted up today which interviewed the girl who posed in the Lego advert from the 1970s. Check it out here.

Anyway, I was going to talk about toys mainly as I’ve been looking around for some recently. I was reading a child development thing the other day and it mentioned how E is at the age where children start to copy what they see in real life in their play and they like to have small worlds to work out. I looked at E’s toys – some teddies and a doll who mostly live in her cot, some toy cars, a plastic goat, and a lot of building blocks – and remembered how much she enjoyed playing with a plastic tea set at my mum’s at Christmas. And how she liked feeding teddies at a teddy bear picnic this week at nursery. So I thought I’d cast about for a few things she might like to aid her development a bit.

First up, where do you go to buy toys these days? We once made a trip to Toys R Us and left very quickly. It’s an homage to plastic TV and film merchandise. It’s like hell on earth. I refuse to go there. Plus it’s on an out of town shopping mall place and I hate those too. Ditto Mothercare and Kiddicare, though both are easier to get to than Toys R Us. In the city centre there’s a small toy section in John Lewis and an Early Learning Centre in the big shopping centre. I think. I’m not much of a fan of Early Learning either – again, too much plastic.

When I was a kid we had a big independent toy shop in town that was good to go to. They had an elevated train track above the tills. There don’t seem to be toy shops any more. So I tried the usual places – Wilkos, the supermarket – and then I ran out of ideas. The few things they had were very gender biased. They were also not very imaginative. I think E is at an awkward age – a lot of toys are marked as 3+, partly for safety and partly for development, but she’s moved on from baby toys.

In the end I decided to go to Hobbycraft. I figured if nothing else, we could get some paints and pens and paper and draw things. E loves Hobbycraft. It’s one of those shops, like Waterstone’s and supermarkets, that put things on her level so there’s lots to see. And in Hobbycraft, a lot of it is so interesting for her. She spent quite some time picking up a box of crayons, carrying them about and putting them back on the shelf, before getting distracted by the bead section.

I went a bit mad, I admit it. I’m really looking forward to making stuff with her. So we did get paints and pens and paper but we also got two make your own felt doll kits and a china tea set with teddy bears to paint on. It came in a tiny suitcase. So far, she likes the tea set though mainly for clanging together, and the pens are thankfully washable (thanks Crayola!).

But as we were heading for the till, we passed the aisle with dressing up costumes in it. There were animal costumes. While not expressly sold for boys, they did have boys in the pictures. And then there were the costumes for girls. The range was called Girls Fantasy. There was a princess dress. Yawn. And then next to that, in the Girls Fantasy range, there was this:

2014-02-08 14.04.48Yes, that’s right. The Victorians, they knew how to do poverty didn’t they? Costumes for it and everything. I’m still debating if I’m the kind of parent who writes to complain about this kind of thing. I’ve got as far as writing down the address of Hobbycraft’s customer services department.

I was going to write here about the ridiculous restricted choices available for girls but looking at it, it seems there isn’t much for boys to aspire to either. Dressing up as another species, a posh girl or a servant who will probably die young from exploitation and exhaustion. We’ve done really well for our children. You might say they’re just toys but on the other hand, shouldn’t it be with toys and in playing that children get to live out their wildest imaginations?

I was listening to a class of school children talking in the local library the other day. The teacher read them a story and went round the class asking what each wanted to be when they grew up. There was a massive ambitious range – doctors, vets, explorers, inventors, one boy wanted to be a robber! I bet, if asked to design some costumes they’d like to dress up with, none of them would come up with a tiger or Victorian poor girl.

I’m reading: Just finished The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. A gripping read of one woman’s descent into mental illness and an exploration of Apartheid-era South Africa. Fabulous, unsettling, thought provoking.

E is reading: Hairy Maclary Sit by Lynley Dodd. E loves Hairy Maclary. She loves all dogs. This series is good because they all rhyme and this one has repetitive bits on every other page. It’s the story of Hairy Maclary misbehaving in the park when he’s supposed to be in an obedience class. She recognises each of Hairy M’s friends and laughs all the way through.

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