These mums in Kota Kinabalu show us that boys too can play with dolls

By Natasha Sim | Parents Avenue’s Writer | Photos and images courtesy of SERATA, Sabrina Aripen, Rachel Chong, Anna Iwankowska, Fellie Edwin and Aldina Applenius 

Mums push back against gendered toys and play

Because toys are essential tools for children to learn about their environment. Gendered toys then function to teach children—often times—unhealthy stereotypes about what being a boy or girl means.

That is why Founder of Society for Respect and Trust or All (SERATA), Sabrina Aripen hopes to spark a conversation around gendered toys. 

“Sometimes we are so fixated on problems faced by women caused by inequalities, but we do not look beyond to when it all began,” she said referring to how learning about gender begins in the family. 

Research has in fact connected “gendered toy marketing with the inequalities we see in adult life.” Toys that push gender stereotypes impart expectations on how boys and girls should behave, thus ideas on what their future careers could be and expectations over what they’re worth.

We speak to Sabrina and mums, Rachel Chong, Anna Iwankowska, Fellie Edwin and Aldina Applenius on what it means to let their little boys play with dolls and kitchen sets; and their girls with trucks and vehicles. 

Blue and pink toy aisles are a product of retail marketing

Walk down any toy store as a parent and we’ll see that toys are grouped into the blue section for boys and pink for girls. 

But did you know that this very effective retail marketing strategy was only introduced as early as the 1940s. Up until the early 20th century, boys and girls played with the same kind of toys—dolls and trucks alike.

Then manufacturers figured out that wealthy families were willing to purchase entirely new sets of clothing and toys, if marketed differently for both genders. 

Thus, the creation of blue and pink aisles in toy stores.

On the left: Sabrina's son Timmy shows us his favourite Sailor Moon action figure.
Children can choose their own toys

“It never crossed my mind to not allow my sons to play with dolls. My nieces have this build your own jewellery set and my younger boys (6 and 3-years-old) were quite fascinated.” 

“Because my boys like to build stuff, so creating jewellery pun boleh juga. They like building legos and a house from boxes It’s like my kids are contractors,” said Rachel, mum to three boys and a one-year-old girl.

Meanwhile, Anna’s 4-year-old boy Michal likes playing with a cooking and kitchen set. Her younger son Leo, 2, enjoys pushing his little baby doll in a stroller around. 

Sabrina says it would do good if we can tell boys like Leo, “wow! I see you pushing your baby doll around. You would be a good daddy one day!” Because we often say to little girls with their dolls that they’d be good mummies some day, we can extend the same courtesy to boys. 

“The blue and pink aisles; comments about their behaviour and choices… Children pick up on these small cues to inform them on how they should behave. It becomes part of their socialization into the world,” said Sabrina. 

And if we can help kids make their own choices, it shows them that mummy and daddy care about what they think. It helps them develop healthy self-esteem.

From L-R: Michal, Leo, Morris and Rachel's daughter, Nia who enjoys playing with trains.
Let toys be toys


“I still remember my friend who told me that I shouldn’t let my girl play with toy cars, if not she’ll grow up to be a tomboy,” said Aldina, mum to three girls and a baby boy. 

Objectively speaking, toy cars provide the opportunity for children to role play, expand their imagination and develop their fine motor skills. Vehicles and construction-type toys can also foster interest in science, physics and engineering.

However, cars, construction, vehicles and action-type toys are more likely given to boys. That means girls can miss out entirely on the educational opportunities ‘boy toys’ could offer. 

Similarly, Rachel shared how her brother-in-law is opposed to boys playing with stuffed toys, for fear that they will grow up ‘soft’. However, being able to care for a stuffed toy or doll teaches empathy, responsibility and practical home skills. 

Unless we see a problem with boys being empathic, responsible and capable home makers, then it is perfectly fine for boys to play with dolls. 

Fellie’s son Morris owns a pink kitchen set that he played with for a long time before outgrowing it. He was 4-years-old. By doing so, Fellie was also indirectly helping him learn new words, gross motor skills, counting, role play and creativity.

In early years education, we are thought to see toys as a tool for learning. Therefore it makes sense that we provide ‘equality of opportunity’ by one manner of “allowing children to play with whatever interests them.”

Aldina shows baby Caleb playing with My Little Pony stuffed toys. Babies don't show gender preferences.
Children become their best selves with a variety of toys

What gendered toys has done is effectively made us, as a society, believe that there is only
one set way a boy should play, hence behave. And vice versa for girls.

Boy toys like action figures, guns and swords are typically related to fighting and aggression. Whereas girl toys like Barbie dolls, kitchen play sets were related to appearance. 

In terms of the kind of skills they nurture, research has shown that strongly masculine boy toys were “rated as violent, competitive, exciting and somewhat dangerous”. And on the other end of the spectrum, strongly feminine girl toys were associated with “physical attractiveness, nurturing and domestic skill.”

More importantly, it’s been said that “toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to develop a child’s physical, cognitive, academic, musical and artistic skills.”

Relating this back to real life, it would certainly help if parents are able to see toys for the kind of skills they are able nurture in children.

Gendered toys can be a thing of the past

Recently, Barbie doll manufacturer Mattel released its first ever gender-neutral doll redefining “who gets to play with a toy traditionally deemed taboo for half the world’s kids.” 

In the US, big box stores like Target have made a move to “phase out gender based signage from their stores” focused especially on the toy section.   

As parents, we can model the same by fostering an environment that nurtures the individual traits of our children, rather than placing an expectation of how they should behave based on gender.

One of those ways, Sabrina believes is through how we let our children play. “We should encourage children to try all—don’t stop them, don’t ban when they show a preference towards something. Give them choices,” she said. 

Society for Equality, Respect And Trust for All (SERATA) is a nonprofit organization based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah that promotes gender equality by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls. Learn more about their work on bridging the gender gap here:

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