Gender stereotyping starts young. So if you want to challenge it, where better to start than toys?

Guest blog by Jess Day, Let Toys Be Toys campaign. Follow Jess on Twitter: @day_jess.

I took and tweeted this photo in Next, Cardiff, in December 2012, infuriated to find that every single toy, from plastic jungle animals to dinosaurs, torches to pocket fans, was prominently labelled ‘Boys’ Stuff’. On the box.

The opposite unit was loaded with pink toiletries.

It turned out I wasn’t the only parent that Christmas who’d finally had enough of the tired old stereotypes being pushed at my kids by the toy industry. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign came together online, and grew quickly, tapping into a growing sense of frustration among many parents and educators at the casual sexism of labelling toys as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’.

Toys – what’s the big deal?

These labels, and the assumptions they reveal, are important. Children understand the gender rule ‘This is for boys and that is for girls,’ in the same way as other sorts of social rules, like ‘Don’t hit’. These rigid boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, provide a fertile ground for bullying, and mean children may miss out on the chance to develop important skills.

When you look at Elmer the elephant stranded underneath a ‘Boys’ sign, or at M&S’ labelling of all their tech toys as ‘Boy stuff’, you have to wonder how anybody thought this was a good idea, or how this made it through months of product planning and marketing meetings.

Unfortunately the rise and rise of gendered marketing – appealing to one segment at the expense of alienating another – has meant that this sort of nonsense starts to seem normal. It takes something like this widely-shared Lego ad from the 1980s to bring home quite how far things have gone.

What we’re asking for.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign wants the toy industry to stop limiting children by promoting some toys only for girls, and others only for boys. Toys are for fun, for learning, for feeding the imagination and encouraging creativity. Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them without feeling that they’re making the ‘wrong’ choice.

The answer is simple – we’re asking retailers, manufacturers and publishers to market toys by genre rather than by gender and let children decide for themselves what they enjoy.

What we’ve achieved.

In our first year we’ve focused on retailers, with a petition, letter-writing and social media campaign. So far fourteen retailers have changed their marketing practices or committed to do so, including Boots removing ‘Gifts for Boys’ signs from displays of science toys, and Debenhams replacing their pink and blue ‘Girls’ and ‘Boys’ signs with thematic signs such as ‘Dolls’, ‘Vehicles’ and ‘Dressing up’.

Our Christmas 2013 survey of shops showed that 20% of stores were using using ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ signs, a 60% drop on the year before.

We’ve seen widespread, even global, media coverage of the campaign, particularly for Toys R Us’ announcement that they will be moving to more inclusive marketing, and Marks & Spencer’s statement that their own-brand toy ranges would all be ‘gender neutral’ by Spring this year.

We’re also really pleased to have had support from MPs across the political spectrum, including Education Minister Liz Truss.

But what’s most important to us is to change things for children, and to do this, we need to get parents, educators and all the other adults around them to start thinking about this issue.

Children deserve the chance to find their own strengths, passions and interests. That’s why it’s so important to let toys be toys – for girls and boys.

How you can help.

We’re currently working on pulling together a resource for teachers and youth leaders who want to look at toys and toy marketing as a way of challenging gender stereotypes – stay in touch via Facebook.