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Ask Surly Amy: Non Gendered Toys For Those Noisy Neighborhood Kids

Hey Amy,

My wife and I live in kind of a poor neighborhood, and we’re sort of well-off by comparison. While we’re not friends with our neighbors, we’re fond of the local kids, who are loud but kind of sweet and open and friendly. We don’t and can’t have any kids of our own. Last year we had an excuse to buy a couple of the kids some gifts because we know they don’t have much, but this year we’d like to be able to do more for the kids.

Here’s the problem: I don’t want to reinforce any sexist stuff with the toy-buying. Last year we knew the sister and brother we bought for, and they BOTH got lightsabers. I know one of the littler girls wants my handgun, but as far as the rest I’m not sure. We don’t really know the other kids, but wewant to do right by them, plus we want to make sure that if they tell their friends about free presents at our house, we have enough for everyone.

So how do we do that without buying guns/cars for boys and pink crap for girls?

~Improbable Joe

Dear Joe,

I am a fan of toys that also teach or encourage creativity so you can do what my family did. Buy cheap art supplies and let the kids make their own toys.

When I was a little tyke and I complained of being bored, my mother would just tell me to go make something. We didn’t have much money when I was a kid either but there was always something to draw on or something to glue together.

Activity toys kick ass.

I highly recommend buying things that can become other things with just a little effort. Most craft supplies are non gender specific as long as you stay away from the craft sets. Sometimes those sets are geared towards boys or girls specifically and are often kinda lame. However, just your run-of-the-mill generic craft supplies are usually perfect and very affordable. All you need to add to construction paper, scissors, glue (look into https://sugru.com/ site to buy the best ones) and colored pens is imagination and imagination is free.

If crafting isn’t your thing, and I know it’s not for everyone, then I suggest buying cheap toys that have no gender implications at all. I would avoid guns and other weapons or any kind of dolls and opt instead for activity based items. Maybe balls or water toys or other sport related items would be good. Or games that a bunch of kids can play together. Just try not to buy pink and blue items when you can. I am personally a fan of both of those colors but if you remove them from the options then kids won’t feel pressured into abiding by social constraints.

Kids can be awful and peer pressure will force a boy to pick blue even if he wants pink so it’s best just to remove it from the options if they aren’t your kids. If they were your kids you would be able to explain why pink is fine for boys and blue is great for girls but you can’t do that with neighborhood kids. Get purple or green or orange if you can. Just avoid colors that enforce gendered stereotypes. And if you can find any toys that teach or encourage science, like a telescope or microscope or chemistry set then 10 extra bonus points for you! And thanks for helping out out those noisy neighborhood kids. That is super swell of you!

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Photos © Amy Davis Roth


Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. One of the problems I ran into is walking this line of not wanting to enforced gender roles and still buying what the child likes.

    It’s a good lesson for what to get -any- kid you don’t know; it applies great for birthday parties (for instance the billion parties we attend for daycare / school friends we don’t know.) Games. No one gets people games anymore. They’re cheap, they last for years (we broke out -our- Chutes and Ladders at grandma’s from 1983) and generally will entertain them at LEAST 1 afternoon (As opposed to lining a toybox.)

    Be kind, though. Don’t give Hungry-Hungry-Hippos.

  2. Toy cars and trucks and motorcycles are marketed as being for boys, but girls like playing with them too — at least, my daughter does. They’re also pretty inexpensive, and they’re active — you have to keep running after them and bringing them back.

    There are also the old-fashioned toys — marbles and jacks and jump ropes and hacky sacks and toys that you DO something with.

    1. Yeah, my niece loves her trucks. She also has a child-size ATV now, lol. AND she loves pink and princesses.

      Remote-controlled cars and such are FUN, for older kids. My nieces and nephews all love them.

  3. Apparently I spend way to much time reading blog comments because I was pretty sure this letter was from Joe based on the first sentence. The bit about the handgun clinched it.

  4. What about sporting toys? I know that sports tend to be associated with boys but many girls do enjoy them. I agree with science toys, always good to encourage!

  5. Thanks Amy!

    Based on the picture, I’m thinking of those “how to” boxes that are always on the clearance tables at the bookstores: how to juggle, how to draw monkeys, how to play harmonica. That’s from Barnes & Noble, isn’t it? Bargain priced!

    Also I think colored chalk, since there’s a sidewalk and nothing goes with sidewalk like chalk.

  6. I agree with the advice to give craft toys. Tickets to a science museum or birding hike might work, for the whole family. Handmade gifts given to me by friends of the family were treasured for a long time as well.

    One caveat: please don’t encourage “cheap toys”. They’re often made of wasteful plastic or wood and pollute lakes and oceans. And for cripes sake, no zoos or aquariums. It sends the wrong message.

  7. As a mom, I would say definitely don’t buy guns/light saber/other weapon toys without talking to the parents. In fact, check with the parents first on all toys unless you want to be possibly mistaken for something less than wholesome. Then again, that’s just my perspective in a not so poor neighborhood. Maybe it’s different where you are.

    Definitely craft kids, sports equipment, etc. Another option would be to ask the child what they like. I tried very hard to be non-gender in my house, but my oldest son just loves trains, and cars, and everything “boy.” My youngest is more ‘artsy’ so if you really want to stretch your dollar, and be intentional about this – figure out what they would like. But seriously every child likes a good outside water toy, or a color book with some crayons and stickers, or other items like that. Also, if you shop at mainstream stores like Target, they all have wooden toy/more gender neutral color lines out now. And if you can find an independent toy store around your place like Creative Kidstuff, you will have endless options. Good luck!

    1. Well… it is a shame that that’s the first place your mind goes to, isn’t it? This is the sort of neighborhood with 6 feet in between the houses and everyone sits on their porches all day and half the night and even though we’re not really friends with anyone here we sometimes sit out on our porch too and everyone waves and says hello and complains about the heat. The kids all sort of play together and they like my dog even though my dog is scared to death of children.

  8. Side walk chalk.

    Our kids have always had a great time with it and now the whole neighbourhood is filled with kids colouring the empty grey concrete and making it beautiful.

    Yesterday I walked into my back yard and found an elaborate game board drawn all over the concrete pad in my yard. By the time I realized it I was stuck on a “miss a turn” space. Took me forever to get to the shed.

  9. Given recent films that have emerged featuring them, I’d offer a bow and arrow set (non-lethal, of course!). :D

  10. Pirate gear! Tricorner hats, peg legs, toy parrot, cutlass, ships–everyone loves pirates!

    Bonus points: get some pirate gear for some of the kids and ninja gear for other kids.

  11. Flow toys/spin gear are awesome for kids. Sock poi are super easy to make from household items – you just need a pair of socks and something to weight them with, like bean bags (and you can make your own at home with plastic baggies filled with dried rice or beans), tennis balls or even rolled up socks (because you want something a bit soft as the weight as hitting one’s self with poi is inevitable). There’s a great video here on how to make your own, and the site has a fantastic series of “how to spin poi” vids going from building the basics to more intricate moves, all for free: http://www.playpoi.com/learn/beginner-series

    Hula hoops are also awesome for kids, and super fun to make. Lots of places sell “make your own hoop” kits and there are plenty of links for DIY projects. I teach a day of flow toy arts to the kids at my old elementary/middle school every year for their World Games series during gym class (the kids play with sock poi and hula hoops) and it’s a hit every time.

    Classic strategy games are great – checkers, chess, Connect Four, Othello, mancala, go, backgammon, etc. Puzzles puzzles puzzles! A favorite are the hanayama puzzles: http://www.puzzlewarehouse.com/Hanayama/?gclid=CLWRgpCto7ECFQbonAodfHQoaw

    Places like the Marbles Brain Store chain are great for finding gender neutral, stimulating games and puzzles that are suitable for varying age ranges, and (at least in my experience) the staff in the stores are very helpful, plus many of their games/puzzles are out of the box in the store for customers to play with. http://www.marblesthebrainstore.com/

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