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Are Gender Neutral Toys Really Better for Kids?

If you've shopped in a Target store since this summer—and what parent hasn't!?—you may have noticed something a little different in the toy section. The company recently decided to remove gender-based labels on toys, saying the decision is a response to concerns from parents who found signage like "boys' blocks" unnecessary. Instead, Target has begun organizing its toys by categories, like dolls and building sets, to create a gender neutral shopping experience for kids. But is blurring the lines between pink and blue really better for our children?

"Pink and blue aren't the problem, it's the meaning people attach to those colors that become problematic," Katie Hurley, LCSW, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and author of the new book, "The Happy Kid Handbook" told Parenting.com. Parents, not kids, are the ones who think things like, "Barbies are for girls, and Hot Wheels are for boys." Kids just love to play. Period. "Play is both the business of childhood and a window into their souls," says Hurley.

It's when we bring our feelings into the mix that we risk changing the innocent way in which kids view toys. For kids, "dolls can be anything, not just babies to care for," Hurley says.

Any parent who has witnessed their child feeding a toy truck or using pretend food to make a phone call can attest that kids direct the play. It's all about imagination! Toys are just a vehicle for expressing thoughts and feelings, and learning about the world.

So it seems Target may be onto something in its avoidance of labeling girl and boy toys. Hurley encourages parents to do the same and simply let a child explore his or her own interests: "To direct a child to play a certain way based on gender is to send a very negative message to that child."

Instead, she suggests, try to understand the individual needs of your son or daughter: "Some kids prefer quiet play; some have specific preferences, like space or safari animals; some like things that make noise; and some mix everything together. Giving children the freedom to play without judgment is more important than dissecting what they choose to play. Step back, make room for play and avoid judging your child. Try not to overthink it. Kids like to try on new roles. Let them. It's how they learn."

So, if your daughter shows an interest in Star Wars action figures, you needn't discourage her, and likewise if your son is drawn to My Little Pony figures. Besides, kids' interests can quickly shift, so overanalyzing their preferences for play is hardly a worthwhile venture.

Hurley recommends simply providing toys and time: "You want your kids to get lost in their imaginations and think creatively."

In her experience, the best toys are indeed gender neutral wooden blocks, animals, people and vehicles. Leave the rest up to the kids, who can do amazing things with just a few supplies.

"We can't teach kids to embrace differences if we stick them in a box and tell them what to play," says Hurley. "Target sent a clear message to consumers: make your own choices; be you. That's a solid message for little kids."

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