Regardless of age, everyone has a memory of a toy that they loved when they were a child, or a toy they wanted but they were never given. The things we play with help determine the people we grow into. This lesson focuses on separating boy toys from girl toys while pausing to take a look at why we sorted the objects the way we did.
This lesson is part of a large mini-unit on Teaching Gender Representation in the Media. It can be used as a stand alone piece, or part of a larger conversation.
On the board, display a picture of a toy box. You can either use a projector and take a moment to draw a chest using a chalkboard or whiteboard. Chests aren’t hard to draw. Rectangles are your friend here. Add the words “Toy Box” to the image. Below the image write the words, “What’s in the box?”
There should be a clear instruction on the board that students should consider what toys they had in their toy box when they were children. On a sheet of paper, students should be encouraged to either make point form notes or draw quick sketches, of their favourite childhood toys.
After five minutes have passed, students should be asked to turn to an elbow partner and discuss their favourite toys. These groups may organically grow larger as the discussion brings in other neighbouring voices.
Before you move on, honour the student’s voice and time by asking them to share their opinions. Be sure to draw all voices into the conversation. While some students may be more eager to share, work to bring every voice to the centre of the conversation.
It goes without saying, that this is a great opportunity for you to discuss your favourite toys as well.
Now that the students have talked about their favourite toys, you’re ready to start looking into the gender messaging inherent in the toys we play with.
Building a Collection
Your first step will be to form a collection of toys or images of toys. I have used both models with my students, and while hands-on toys can work well with small groups, teachers in larger classrooms may find it easier to manage images displayed through a projector.
When looking for images, I would also suggest teachers use Pixabay as their first stop. If you’d like, you can use the six images below as a start to your collection, or you can run a smaller version of this activity with those images alone.
I suggest that you get some tricky toys that will have students questioning their choices. For example, Lego vs. Lego Friends, or a toy kitchen with a washing machine attachment, versus a toy kitchen with a BBQ attachment. I also use images of female and male soldier dolls to juxtapose barbie and ken.
Another favourite image of mine is the Nerf Rebel crossbow, which is a pink and purple dart-firing weapon.
Running the Lesson
The lesson is broken into three parts. The first is categorizing the images, the second is discussing their choices, and the third is reflecting on the similarities.
Categorizing the Images
- Ask students to draw a T-Chart on a sheet of lined paper, or provide them a copy of the The Toy Box handout. They should label one column “Brother” and the other column “Sister”.
- Display the first image, or toy, for students to see. Ask students to think about the toy and decide if they would give it to their imaginary fraternal twin brother, or imaginary fraternal twin sister for their birthday. At this point you will have many students saying, “I’d get it for either!” but insist that there is only one in the shop, and they must decide: does it go to the brother or the sister?
- Students will write the name of the toy on their T-Chart.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have gone through all of the images. I recommend using at least 12 images.
- Once students have sorted each image into a column, draw your own T-Chart on the board, and ask students to raise their hand if they decided to give the toy to their brother, and then ask students to raise their hand if they decided to give the toy to their sister.
- Record the name under the column with the most amount of votes.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 for all of the toys.
If you were using real toys, you could give them to a group of students, and have them sort them into two groups – or, better yet, have them create a line where the ones they would definitely give to their brother is at one end, and the ones they would definitely give their sister is at the other end. They will still need to create a line that breaks the toys into two sections, but by thinking about which ones are closer to being gender neutral, you will have an opportunity to delve deeper into the next part of this lesson.
Discussing their Choices
You will now have a list of toys categorized as being for boys or for girls. There will undoubtedly be some descent in your classroom. Some students may become incredibly vocal about how they disagree with the order, or that this activity was sexist.
Use those comments to open the discussion, and allow students a voice to explain why they either agree or disagree. You should do your best to remain neutral in this conversation, allowing students to voice their opinions. Highlight some key concepts that you will want to return to in later lessons, but do your best not to influence their thoughts.
Once the discussion has run its course, you can proceed to the next part of the lesson.
Reflecting on the Similarities
Students should now be asked to look at all the toys of the different lists. In small groups, challenge them to find similarities between the items. Some concepts that often float to the surface is that the toys in the brother column are often “active” where the user engages in some creative active play, interacting with the world, while toys in the sister column are often more “passive”. Violent toys are often in the brother column, while fluffy toys find themselves in the sister column. Colours are often grouped together as well. The presented gender of the toy normally influences the column.
Once students have created their lists of adjectives that describe each side, ask them to read them to the class. You will add these words to a new T-Chart on the board.
Once all students have shared their ideas, ask the class to find words and concepts that overlap between the brother side and the sister side. There are often very few overlapping ideas. Next, discuss the terms that are on each side.
You can now ask the class, “what is the difference between the brother and the sister?” which will lead to some deeper discussion but will ultimately return to the concept of gender. At this point, talk about how there must be something about their gender that made them think the brother would like one thing and the sister the other.
Have them extrapolate that those terms are not only describing the toys, but also cultural assumptions about Gender Normative expectations for boys and girls.
Once that idea has been introduced, you can move on to the final part of the lesson.
Ask students to write a P.E.E. Paragraph, or draw a picture, or in some other way communicate how those gender-based expectations have affected their lives. They can express either positive or negative examples.
Let them know that you will be discussing their pieces at the beginning of the next class.