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Three girls' toys that all children should get to play with

A lifesize Barbie Dreamhouse door and entrance graphic for Barbie Gets With the Program, and exhibit about Barbie computers and the real computers on which they were based
Barbie Gets With the Program, an exhibit I designed for Living Computer Museum + Labs, was inspired by the work of Rachel Simone-Weil, an artist and video game historian whose project FEMICOM Museum champions the pink and pretty electronic toys marketed to girls that are often left out of video game archives.

Most of us who are concerned about the strict gendering of toys are in agreement: the way toys are designed and marketed is sexist and harmful to children. But all too often these discussions take a turn away from discussing the limitations this puts on children and start maligning toys meant for girls and upholding boy toys as somehow better.

The STEM craze has loudly proclaimed the value of building and tinkering toys traditionally marketed to boys and links proficiency in spatial reasoning and math to capitalistic success. But it is important not to conflate higher salaries with higher value work. It's sexism, not inherent value, that drives wage disparity between men-dominated fields like engineering and women-dominated fields like teaching.

Though feminists are making headway in the fight against femmephobia, you can still hear “girly” used as a synonym for “dopey" and dismissive references to “playing with dolls" as a frivolous pastime. To suggest that playing with dolls is not as important as playing with blocks reifies a hierarchy of play and sends children the message that some interests are better than others.

Here are three toys that are generally thought of as being for girls and why they are important for children of all genders. We in the children's museum field use these toys in our exhibits because they are open-ended, build confidence, inspire imaginative and dramatic play, and nurture social skills like negotiation, cooperation, and empathy.

1. Baby Dolls

A young White child with a blue shirt and short blond hair bathes a baby doll in a little purple bathtub in the Doc McStuffins traveling exhibit
Indianapolis Children's Museum's Doc McStuffins exhibit features a doll nursery where children can practice care and empathy.

Realistic baby dolls often have accurate proportions, anatomically correct bodies, and a range of skin tones. In their day-to-day lives, children are dependent on grownups so it can be empowering to become someone who takes care of someone else for a change. When young children play with a baby doll, they draw on their observations and experiences. They rock the baby in their arms, sing to it, feed it, bathe it, and change its diapers. Children will even emulate the high-pitched voice their caregivers used to use with them when they were smaller. When children imagine the feelings and needs of others, they are building empathy.

2. Dollhouses

A young Black child with hair in twists plays with a Playmobil dollhouse
Goldsmiths in London conducted a study in 2016 using Playmobil toys to see how pretend play influenced children's attitudes toward people with disabilities and refugees. Photo courtesy the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

Dollhouses make a child’s familiar world small and easy to manipulate. The scale of pretend play gives children a sense of control and allows them to act out scenarios between characters. Through storytelling and dialog children practice communication and social skills. When two or more children play together with a dollhouse, the negotiation skills they develop are valuable too.

3. Play Kitchens

Two young children, one Black and one White, wear aprons and pass plastic toy vegetables over a kitchen sink in a play diner
The Diner I designed for the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts features a child-sized kitchen complete with red glowing burners on a play stove.

In a world where everything is designed for tall adults, a scaled-down anything is exciting. This is especially true of a space like a kitchen where young children don't typically get to experience much freedom or autonomy. Real kitchens are full of no-nos: sharp knives, hot stoves, and heavy pots. Play kitchens give children a safe opportunity to emulate grownups independently and begin to develop healthy personal relationships with food, eating, and cooking. Watch children in a play kitchen and you'll notice they way they try out familiar phrases like "coming right up!" and negotiate dramatic play narratives with one another.

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