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Lucas Dolan, 7, left, starts to build a science project from a kit, while his sister Lilli Ana Dolan, 5, plays with her dolls and other girl's toys inside their home in Pleasant Hill, Calif., on Thursday, March 21, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)
Should toys get a gender-neutral makeover?
First Published Mar 29 2013 10:43 am • Last Updated Mar 29 2013 10:43 am

Two months ago, Jorge Meija, of Martinez, Calif., spotted the perfect bicycle for his 4-year-old son, Julian, at a garage sale. It was gently used with sturdy wheels and a clean chain. It was also pink.

There was a time when Meija, an immigrant from a "traditional home where men went to work and women cooked and cleaned" would’ve left the bike behind because of its color.

At a glance

Gender-bender toys

Easy-Bake Oven for boys » After a 13-year-old New Jersey girl presented Hasbro with 40,000 signatures from parents and celebrity chefs urging the toy company to come out with an Easy-Bake Oven for boys, Hasbro responded with prototypes in blue, black and silver. They should debut by summer and will include boys in the commercials and packaging. www.hasbro.com.

GoldieBlox for girls » Designed to stimulate an interest in engineering among girls 6 and older, GoldieBlox is a storybook and construction kit that teaches girls to solve problems and help people by building machines. Oakland-based founder Debbie Sterling hopes to develop Goldie into a brand. The debut includes a storybook, figurines and supplies to build a belt drive. www.goldieblox.com.

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But the $5 price spoke to him, as did the message it would send to Julian, who plays with his kitchen set with the same enthusiasm he brings to his trucks.

"I want my kids to understand gender without discriminating or thinking it is the only thing that defines them," Meija says. "Dad cooks, and mom rode dirt bikes as a girl. Why should it matter?"

It is a common debate among parents and child development experts. Should gender be stripped from the $22 billion toy industry, or is a wave of new toys deliberately designed with gender in mind — like GoldieBlox, a construction kit pegged to girls, or an Easy-Bake Oven for boys — the answer to equal opportunity play? Perhaps a little bit of both.

Preferences for gendered toys begin in preschool, says Susan Linn, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. While there are inherent differences in how the genders play and what toys they prefer, Linn says the environment in which kids play — and what they are exposed to — can encourage other skills.

"Boys are born with stronger connections in the area of the brain where visual spatial abilities are centered, and girls have stronger connections in areas where language and fine-motor skills are centered," she says.

But preschool also is the time when their brains are most open to influence on the abilities and roles that traditionally go with their gender.

"That’s why it’s important to provide children with opportunities for a diversity of play experience, why girls should have access to blocks and other toys associated with boys, and why boys should have cuddly toys and dolls," she says. "They may still choose the gendered toys, but it’s important to provide them with other options."

Ultimately, Linn says, the best toys are the ones that lie there until the child brings them to life — gender-neutral items such as books, puzzles and clay.

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Suzanne Chasalow, of Vallejo, Calif., found that to be true with her twin 10-year-olds, Shira and Ilan.

Access for both children to educational toys, such as books and art supplies," she says. "I thought a lot about buying neutral colors and supporting their natural curiosity about everything."

When Shira got stuffed animals, her brother was offered the same. Although she played with her "stuffies" more, Ilan would join in order to interact. "I don’t think he would have been interested in many of the toys he ended up playing with if he didn’t have a sister," Chasalow says.

They also gave Shira trains, cars and Legos, expanding her repertoire with toys she possibly wouldn’t have had without a brother, Chasalow says. When they were 7, the twins went to a Lego pre-engineering camp, and Shira was the only girl there.

"She didn’t mind," Chasalow says, "but she did notice." It will be a while before Jen Bloch’s 8-month-old daughter can play with Legos, but the Richmond, Calif., woman is so determined to expose her daughter to toys stereotypically associated with boys that she pre-ordered GoldieBlox, a toy that features a female engineer who solves problems by building machines. It is aimed at girls 6 and older.

The toy, designed by Stanford University engineering graduate Debbie Sterling, hits store shelves in April and has created buzz among parents and educators eager to see if GoldieBlox helps develop girls’ spatial skills and interest in science, technology, engineering and math — S.T.E.M. in academia.

"My hope is that she’ll at least have an edge when it comes to those subjects," Bloch says.

Sterling, who is based in Oakland, Calif., hopes GoldieBlox is a social game changer.

"We’re seeing a big shift in what people expect and demand for their daughters," says Sterling, who added a narrative component to GoldieBlox to appeal to girls’ love of storytelling. In her debut, Goldie builds a spinning machine with a pegboard, wheel and crank to help her dog, Nacho, chase his tail. "Everything in our world is built by engineers, but 89 percent of them are male. It is critical that we include the perspective of women. What I’m trying to show girls and their parents is that engineers are creative and innovative. And female."

But, as many parents know, the princess culture often takes firm hold of girls by age 6.

It is something that concerns Lizette Dolan, the mother of a 5-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy. She works as an equity educator at Athenian School in Danville, Calif., and consults at other schools on how best to serve diverse populations. She often consults on issues of gender.

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