Engendered toys: Construction toys

Construction toysI’ve just come home from work to find both my sons helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad have been watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY, I remember when I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much constant. Here’s the bit where this kind of story usually highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. However that was never the case in our house, my dad was generally careful especially when it came to electrical repairs and I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without looking into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I can do pretty much any DIY job. However TV had a very different message to send me, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.

new_4960802_retro-tv-icon-1I often have a good moan at the media in these gender posts but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’m pretty sure that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop, I know I’ve always felt a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you might expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have become less popular than they were a generation ago and they have.

Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. For example there’s no denying the up-surge in the role that computer games play in a young boy’s life which has occurred over the last two or three decades. What’s more we can’t ignore the role that health and safety regulations have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.

tooltimeHowever, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to.

Describing shows like this as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.

In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s sat there since before Christmas and has had little to no interest. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).

lgst3241boys-are-stupid-throw-rocks-at-them-boys-are-stupid-poster

Really hate this meme, nothing positive about it and it’s not funny

I suppose this post has a lot in common with my last post about gender: both posts blame media depictions of day-to-day life and both this criticism alongside a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative.

There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of young boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for children to play with these construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?

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4 comments on “Engendered toys: Construction toys

  1. It’s interesting that your “Real Power Workshop” woodworking kit hasn’t sold yet. Do you think it might be that the box art is unappealing compared to some of the other toys? The use of licensed characters to sell toys has become so big these days, and you mentioned Bob the Builder. Do you think it would sell faster if it was “Bob the Builder’s Woodshop Kit” or something along those lines, with a picture of the character on the box? As you pointed out, kids do watch quite a bit of television these days and I’ve heard many bemoan the point that some of the shows seem to be used to “pre-sell” kids on certain related toys and other products.

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    • John says:

      You’re probably right about licensing but with licensing a toy company hits at least 2 problems (as far as I can see). 1. You tend to find that the licensing fees for that kind of thing can often deter a lot of companies from making the attempt to get something branded as ‘Bob the builder’s workshop’. However, the primary problem is really found in 2. Choosing the appropriate brand, it can be hard to pick the right character to optimise the sales of this kind of product, this is pretty closely related to the lack of continuity in ‘handy’ role-models through a child’s development. The kids who are at an appropriate age for this kind of kit are past pre-school which is the target audience of shows like Bob the builder, so calling it Bob the builder’s/Handy Manny’s woodworking set will likely scare off kids who see those characters as better suited for kids half their age.
      As to the role of TV and of peer popularity I totally agree, in fact I posted about a fairly similar topic a couple of weeks back https://johnthetoyshopguy.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/fasionable-toys/ Thanks for commenting, it’s great to get some feedback and I hope to hear from you again soon 🙂

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  2. […] of exposing kids to positive depictions of masculinity pop along to a recent post I did on my blog here. Cheers, […]

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