Sexism and the Early Learning Centre


Ever since I left the innocence and naivety of my own childhood behind me I’ve loathed the Early Learning Centre. Their toys are renowned for being overpriced and promoting stereotypical ideals. Has anything changed over the years? I decided to pick up their recent Spring/Summer 2012 catalogue to find out. Although to be honest, the cover design didn’t instil me with much confidence:

White girl on the cover? Check.
Is she wearing pink? Check.
Is she wearing a tiara? Check.
Is she wearing fairy wings? Check.
Are the wings pink? Check.
Does she have a wand? Check.
Is she smiling? Check.
Is her head turned coyly? Check.

In this article I am going to look at the assumptions bound up in this catalogue which are aimed at an age when children are beginning to assimilate notions about the world and their roles in it.

Pink and Blue Fetish

The ELC has a relentless obsession with dividing their toys into pink and blue. The toys are normally identical in design and function (for example, a plastic spade), yet the ELC has felt it necessary to separate them across implicit gender lines, thus separating boys and girls in the process. In the vast majority of instances girls are shown with the pink items, and boys with the blue. This pink/blue dichotomy fills the bulk of the catalogue.
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Even generic toys such as bubble machines and space hoppers, which are about as gender-neutral as you can get, have been gendered into pink and blue.
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Anybody might think that, when it comes to these kinds of toy, there’d be little reason for making any kind of distinction between the sexes.
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Normally plasticine would give massive scope to a child’s imagination. However, even here there’s been a closing of doors as the endless search for novelty, and therefore further profits, has worked against creativity. The tools and moulds in the sets above restrict children’s play in narrow, circumscribed ways.
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These sets show how even Lego, once renowned for being unisex and stimulating free play, have started prescribing how their products should be used. Here boys are instructed to make a farm whilst girls are instructed to make a house. These products illustrate, once again, how commercial pressures work against creativity and imagination.
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A child does not need to be reminded of gender every time he or she picks up or looks at a toy. Alongside the pink/blue dichotomy, sometimes the ELC goes a step further by applying indicators of sex-role expectations to their products. Take this example from page 49:

The boys’ bike is named “The Rascal” thus playing on the stereotype of boys as naughty.

The girls bike is named “Glitterbug” playing on the stereotype that girls love bling. Notice how the boys’ bike is fitted with a bottle stand and water bottle to hydrate the boy after all his strenuous biking. The girls’ bike on the other hand is fitted with a dolly seat to reinforce her mothering role (more on this later). Also the boys’ bike has greater grip on its tires enhancing movement, while the girls’ bike has cheerleader style pom-pom tassels hanging off the handle bars which can hinder movement. The message is clear: the boys’ bike is for serious biking. The girls’ bike is merely a decorate accessory. This is even reflected in the corresponding helmets.

Girls do not have an innate attraction to pink. Nor do boys to blue. In fact, blue was once regarded as a girls’ colour, because of its association with the Virgin Mary, while pink, as a lighter version of red, was a masculine colour. ‘Genderisation’ of colours is a cultural construct.

I decided to see if this pink/blue dichotomy was mirrored in the way ELC stores are laid out. Sadly, yes it was. As you can see one section of the store was overwhelmingly pink and contained gender-biased ‘girls’ toys (dolls, kitchens, vanity sets):

Photos taken in ELC Gateshead UK store, April 2012
Another section contained only gender-biased ‘boys’ toys (cars, dinosaurs, trains):
Note that alongside blue, a generous mixture of other primary colours fill the boys’ section.

Campaign group ‘Pink Stinks’ has commented that, “Pink has become the trademark colour that represents modern girlhood. It seems no ‘girl’ product/item of clothing is safe, with just about anything being able to be pinkwashed.”

Creating unnecessary gender distinctions in children’s toys is socially harmful, as the message that girls and boys are radically different becomes reinforced again and again. 

Boys as Default. Girls as ‘Other’.

In the ELC catalogue ‘male’ is often taken to be the default or unisex category, with ‘female’ is a notable, marked, non-default one. In other words, boys are portrayed as the norm (using primary gender-neutral primary colours), while girls are a special subcategory (using pinks). It is no coincidence that the girls’ colours are more subtle.
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Notice the cars are labelled as “red”, “police” and “princess”. Only the girls label is gendered.
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There’s the assumption that anything that’s good for boys is good for everyone. Boys are the default. They get the neutral colours.
Example from the ELC store:

This doctrine of Male-As-Default treats girls as a negligible subgroup, and femaleness as abnormal but always noteworthy. So apart from being told, and shown on the packaging, which sex these products are for, we have coded messages in the design, form and colour.

Boys and girls are more alike than different in biology and attitudes. So why does the ELC have a relentless desire to separate them? The answer, as you would expect from a Capitalist corporation, lies in profitability. The more children share toys, the fewer toys get sold. Gendering toys is a great way of nudging families toward buying more items per child. The deeply unfortunate consequence of this marketing strategy is that boys and girls are indoctrinated into the strict gender roles deemed appropriate in a Patriarchal society. The ELC catalogue provides some perfect examples of this indoctrination in action:

Boys are Scientific.

There are certain people who think that the greater presence of men in high-end math and science positions is a result of the distribution of inborn abilities. These people probably never walked into a toy store and saw the type of toys that boys are nudged towards. Luckily here’s the ELC to remind us.
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One aspect that’s noticeable about the marketing of these toys is the assumption that girls are less interested in STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) playthings than boys. This assumption is diluting our society’s pool of scientific talent. It leads girls to develop an internalized notion that boys are smarter than they are, even when their grades are equal or better (S.P.A.R.K 2012).

Boys are Breadwinners in Training.

In boys’ toys we see a range of careers being offered. It is a perfect illustration of gendered job segregation, and the social construction of skill. A notable example is the ‘handyman’ career:
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Examples from the ELC store:
Bosch “My First Work Bench”
Other popular career examples promoted to boys include police officer, truck driver, fire fighter, pilot and astronaut.
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The little people that accompany these toys increase the range of things that the ELC can say to children. The toys pictured above say to them it’s an mainly white, mainly male world, where men hold all the jobs, and women, on the rare occassion they appear, are mere consumers. Of course, you could find some female figures and put them into the fire engine and plane, but then the males often have non-removable hats attaching them, so to speak, to their roles. So the pilot of the plane and the driver of the fire engine, both male, have appropriate helmets indicating that they belong in their machines. It could be argued that this is how life is. The point, however, is to change it.
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These toys introduce toddler boys to the world of competition and speed which will loom so large in toys for later years. ‘Speeding’, ‘flashing’, ‘ignition’ and ‘siren’ and just a few of the words used on this page.
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Here we see lorries, engines, wagons and tractors from the ordinary workaday world. Also note that ideas of size, power and aggression are much to the fore.
And last, but certainly not least, of the many careers open to boys are builder and technician.
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A lot of the above toys have something in common – putting things together – and this means making sense of the world and increasing awareness of space. Many encourage the skills needed to be successful in technical career fields. They foster autonomy and mental stimulation, teaching coordination and problem solving. Through these toys, boys can freely, explore and experiment, establishing a confidence for future interactions with science and technology.

Boys Fantasise About Being Violent.

Boys are thought to be naturally boisterous. Another way of looking at this, however, is to take the view that they are turned away from most of their emotions, or at least from expressing them. Only emotions associated with competition and aggression, such as anger, are generally open to boys.
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Descriptive phrases used on this page include: “Terrifying”, “Scary”, “Mighty”, “Roaring”. One of the characters is referred to as a “beefy chap” which presumably means muscular and well-built.
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Notice that the characters are permanently bent at the knees, which gives the figures, when standing, a crouching ready-for-a-fight posture. What the body language says is ‘aggression’. The figures are armed, mostly with various axes, swords and clubs, pushed into fists which have holes made through them, for this purpose.
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Not much of a look-in for girls here, while boys get a good push in the direction of the macho image.

Boys may seem, at first sight, to have the run of the world – but what sort of world is it? As we’ve seen, especially in this section of the catalogue, it’s a world without care or compassion, where questions of causes or principles don’t arise, and where power, aggression and violence are seen as good in themselves.

“Boys are less infantilised and vulnerable than girls – at least they get strong messages about practicality, activity and strength. But they also get a huge dollop of ‘agro’ marketing to help render them emotionally stunted, uncaring, aggressive and hyper-butch. Lad-culture clearly starts here” (‘Pink Stinks’).

In the ELC catalogue’s “Goodies and Baddies” section, the goodies and baddies are clearly distinguished, often by their appearance and dress; the baddies tend to look repulsive and to dress in black or, at least, dark colours. The goodies are of aristocratic stock or from some sort of elite. The hero (it won’t be female of course, or other than white either) often has a magic weapon, or talisman, to which he owes his powers. Female figures don’t come into the picture much and, when they do, they tend to create problems by having to be rescued. Why the baddies are so evil or why they want to dominate, as they usually do, is never explained. Rather, we just have to accept it as a kind of odd quirk they happen to have.

This section of the catalogue is also an example of how boys’ toys encourage more fantasy play that is symbolic or removed from daily domestic life, whereas, as we shall see bellow, girls’ toys encourage fantasy play that is centered on domestic life.

Girls are Bland.

Girls’ toys come in very few color options and are severely lacking in primary colours. Toys such as those shown bellow present almost a complete world, or a way of looking at the world, and therefore it’s very important to ask just what values, attitudes and ideas are being presented to children by these means. All have characteristics in common which girls have been socially conditioned to respond to: colours which are not too strong, curved and rounded shapes and flower decorations. This is not healthy for the way that girls think of femininity, or the way that boys and girls think of each other.
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The society depicted in these toys is affluent, conventional, western European and all-white.

Girls are Sex Objects.

A section of the ELC catalogue is devoted to beauty-related toys. It is an example how girls are encouraged to focus on activities centred around physical appearance and vanity. There is no boys’ equivalent of such products. Boys have zero focus on attracting members of the opposite sex. In this sense it could be argued that girls are encouraged to grow up quicker than boys.

Take the mini stilettos for instance. Aside from hooking children onto the idea of fashion as early as possible, there’s something more insidious about the idea of a little girl in stilettos. Perhaps it’s because the purpose of high heels is: “to give the optical illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height. They are also designed to alter the wearer’s posture and gait, flexing the calf muscles, and making the bust and buttocks more prominent” (Wikipedia).

The catalogue uses the word ‘fun’ to describe the stilettos. “Great ‘fun’ with a friend or three” it tells us. Using the word ‘fun’ is deliberate. There’s less of the grown-up in it and more of the child; it has less to do with the role of sex object and more to do with play; it’s what manufacturers of ‘beauty-related’ toys want to pretend their products provide for children. How else could they attempt to justify their activities? It seems the meaning of the word is being stretched here as, whatever little girls get out of putting their feet into tight-fitting plastic faux shoes, it can hardly be described as ‘fun’.

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These products set the agenda for a ceaseless round of triviality and self-indulgence. There’s little room for anything else. When playing with such toys, girls learn that appearance and attractiveness are central to their worth.
Here are some examples from the ELC store:
‘Braun Beauty Set’ for 3 year olds

Girls Love Cooking and Cleaning.

Almost anything connected with food and cleanliness is thought proper for little girls. For the record, I have no problem with children pretending to cook and clean. It is only natural that they would want to mimic the adult world. My problem lies in the fact that cooking and cleaning toys are disproportionally marketed to girls, socialising girls into a life of domestic martyrdom whilst giving boys the impression that this domain is not for them. Here, the ELC almost seems to be running a campaign to nudge, or rather push, girls into the role of dutiful housewife.
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Everything in this range limits play as much as promotes it. In other words, you can only play out actions suggested by the items themselves. As a rule, children are very good at adapting but these playthings are so detailed that it would be very difficult to put them to any uses other than the obvious ones.

Girls Belong in the Home.

Like the items above, the toys in this category also link into the ‘housewife’ role. The overall point to be made here is that these examples of dolls’ houses and furnishings have a great deal to do with the indoctrination of particular social attitudes and not very much to do with children’s play, as such. In particular, the amount of detail in these products set severe limits on the imagination.
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Children make up stories and dramas about their toys as they play with them but the toys themselves can set limits on such creativity. For example, these doll figures, in their narrow but well-stocked little worlds, offer small scope for imaginative and varied role play. Here, a deliberate attempt is made to prompt children into restricted and conventional fictions.
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In the catalogue and on the packaging of these toys, the figures are shown sitting in the chairs or beds and there’s not much else for them to do.
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Notice how girls toys – dolls’ houses and play kitchens for example – tend to be static and to confine children to a particular spot. Boys’ toys on the other hand encourage movement. And they wonder why girls have poorer spatial awareness than boys!

Girls Fantasise About Being Passive Princesses.

These princess-related playthings encourage girls to think that looking pretty and getting feedback from others about what a pretty princess you are is essential. It also teaches girls that materialism – i.e. having the most stuff – is very important. This leads to narcissism, rampent consumerism, and future self-esteem issues. Furthermore, valuing girls for their appearance over their other attributes (which is what the princess culture is all about) is the first step on the ladder of sexualizing little girls.
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Here we see how the ELC use certain words again and again, as if they are pressing buttons. Descriptive phrases used on this page include: “lovely-looking”, “beautiful”, “sparkly”, “pretty”, “gorgeous”.
While all children want affirmation, princess culture teaches little girls to get that approval through their looks. It encourages them to define themselves from the outside in.

Girls are Mothers in Training.

Similar to cooking and cleaning toys, the only problem I have with baby dolls is that they are marketed almost exclusively to girls. This means that boys are being denied the opportunity to develop confidence in caring and nurturing.
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Competition for the vast baby doll market has led to all sorts of gimmicks and an ever-increasing realism (which usually involves ever-decreasing scope for imagination).
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“My First Pram” – the first of many it is presumed.
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Notice the token boy in the corner. Shame this doll only says “mum mum”. Not “dad dad”. Also notice the token black doll, which is identical to the white dolls, apart from the colour.

Boys Build. Girls Decorate.

The arts and crafts section of the ELC catalogue is dominated by mainly girls. All the items they are shown playing with are decorative. Boys, when they appear, are shown building functional items. The boys’ craft products encourage spatial awareness, dexterity, precision and movement. The girls’ craft products encourage vanity and aesthetics.
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It’s a shame that so many of these items push girls into rather trivial and uncreative directions – decorating a spoon, putting together ‘jewellery’ and making paper flowers. Whilst boys’ crafts tend to mimic work done in skilled employment.
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The Matryoshka, the traditional Russian nesting toy, says something about motherhood in a simple yet symbolic way.
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Here, all girls have to do is copy the projected outline of a fairy. No independent brain activity required.

Girls are Flexible.

On a positive note, some gender flexibility is shown in the catalogue (i.e. children playing with toys traditionally associated with the opposite gender). However girls and boys are not equal in this regard. In the catalogue significantly more girls than boys crossover to the “non-traditional gender toys”.

That girls are more likely to use unisex toys is not a new concept. The ELC catalogue has simply chosen to strengthen the generally accepted notion that gender flexibility is available to girls, but not to boys. Why might this be? The answer lies in androcentrism. Androcentrism is the idea that we value masculinity over femininity such that we admire both boys and girls for performing masculinity.  Androcentrism explains why we tend to like it when girls play with cars and dinosaurs, kick footballs and build with bricks, but do not typically think it’s equally awesome when boys play with vanity sets, wear tutus or collect dolls. It flows from the fact that feminine activities are generally those activities which our Patriarchal society does not attach great value (domestic chores, childcare, looking after others). So when boys play with such activities, they could be viewed as diminishing their dominant position in society. However when girls play with masculine activities, they can be viewed as rebelling against their subservient position in society.

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Shame this toy is described as a “he” when there is no need to assign gender to it.
It is no surprise that if a toy helps to build knowledge and encourage learning and spatial awareness, it is almost always associated with boys (e.g. maps, telescopes, construction blocks, sports equipment). On the other hand, toys associated with subservience and waiting on others are almost always associated with girls (cooking utensils, cleaning equipment, baby dolls). To give ELC some credit, I did come across these refreshing examples of male gender-deviance in the catalogue.
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The blue/pink dichotomy is present in the push chairs, almost as if the colour blue gives the boy ‘permission’ to be using one. There is some attempt to counter this by using dolls of the opposite colours.
Of course we could argue that playing with dolls doesn’t have to be solely a feminine activity, and playing with construction bricks doesn’t have to be solely a masculine activity. We could argue that these are labels I have placed on the toys as a result of my own gender indoctrination, and we could instead embrace all these activities as gender neutral. Sadly, the ELC won’t allow for this. On their website (accessed 20th April 2012) they separate toys into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. So even though the catalogue has token boys playing with dolls and cleaning equipment for example, the website unfortunately classifies all dolls and cleaning equipment as for girls. Similarly, cars and construction bricks are placed in the boys section of the website. This diminishes the credibility of any gender flexibility shown in the catalogue.
A screen-grab of the website’s drop-down box
The ELC website also includes the option of shopping by “learning skill”; for instance, ‘creativity’, ‘problem solving’ or ‘imagination’. At first glance this seems positive and gender neutral. However sadly this is merely a smoke screen for more gender bias. For instance, the products defined as promoting the learning skill of “problem solving” are the products mostly placed in the “boys” section of the website. To reinforce this, it is predominantly boys who are shown playing with these items.
The consequence of boys being unable to exercise gender flexibility is that boys are being denied certain aspects of normal play. The roles of caring for others and home-making are important and valuable. Our society would not function without them. However if boys ‘gender-deviate’ by playing with such activities, our culture classifies them as homosexual or transgender.

When I Grow Up…

Toys tell boys and girls a lot about what society will expect from them in the future. Take these jigsaws from page 152 of the catalogue for example. The first jigsaw also appears in the ‘boys’ section of the ELC website. The second jigsaw appears in the ‘girls’ section of the website. Thus a boy can become a fire fighter. A girl can become… umm… someone who sits in a house.

This is an example of how even jigsaws present children with a particular view of the world. Here, socially conditioned roles are presented simply but forcefully.

In the world of ELC, besides being home-dwellers, mothers and cleaners, girls can look forward to a career as a… princess. Out of the catalogue’s ‘dressing up’ outfits a massive two thirds of the girls are wearing a type of princess dress. These dresses restrict movement and are difficult to launder – thus staying still and keeping clean is a must for the child wearing them. It is an example of how girls are nudged away from activeness. Colette Dowling’s Frailty Myth describes the consequences:

Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits…. Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.”

Out of the remaining seven girls in dressing up outfits, two of them are nurses and two of them are vets (jobs involving looking after others). Only three are gender neutral (doctor, fire fighter and police officer). Boys on the other hand, are given pirate outfits (fighting and law braking) Batman (fighting and heroism), knights (fighting), cowboy (fighting), and builder (breadwinner). All encourage boys to be active. The title for this part of the catalogue reads: “When I Grow Up”.

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The playthings on sale in this category don’t leave much to the imagination, and only prompt children into rituals to do with power, race and gender.
Even the girls’ ‘Peppa Pig’ outfit is dressed as a princess.
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Hold on! What’s going on in the tent?!
Oh. A girl nurse dressed in pink is looking after a brave Batman boy.
Note that beside the nurse there is a girl shown wearing a doctor’s outfit! However sadly this is mere tokenism. The same doctor’s outfit features in the boys’ section of the ELC website and in the ELC store the outfit is colour coded blue whilst the nurse’s outfit is colour coded pink:

To add insult to injury, the nurse outfit is decorated with a badge reading: “Nurse in Training”. The doctor’s outfit is decorated with a badge reading: “Doctor: Head of Surgery”. There is a blatant hierarchy.

It would appear that the ELC still enjoy shoehorning very young children into traditional gender roles. Here are how the girls’ dressing up clothes are set out in the ELC store:

The range of work presented to girls by the ELC is very narrow and most of the jobs can be seen as extensions of the housewife and mother roles – that is, they are ones that involve caring, providing and servicing.
Alternatively your daughter could always be a cheerleader.
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Interestingly, adults are featured sparsely in the catalogue. There are only six adults in total and they are all female. This strengthens the stereotype of ‘Women as Primary Child-Carers’. The women are shown supervising children playing on large apparatus, smiling adoringly as they do so. But why no men? It would seem that men have no place playing with children, at least in the eyes of the ELC.

ELC Catalogue Stats:

Total number of pages: 158.
Total number of boys photographed: 228.
Total number of girls photographed: 263.
(Of 228) Boys playing with gender-biased toys: 97 (pirate outfits, tools, lawnmower, sports, cars, etc).
(Of 228) Boys playing with non-traditional gender toys: 11 (cleaning equipment, play kitchen, dolls, etc).
(Of 263) Girls playing with gender-biased toys: 78 (princess outfits, cooking, dolls, vanity sets, etc).
(Of 263) Girls playing with non-traditional gender toys: 44 (wheelbarrow, sports, cars, dinosaurs, fire fighter outfit, etc).
Three main colour themes for boys: blue, green, red.
Three main colour themes for girls: pink, lilac, fuschia.
Three main activity themes for boys: cars, construction, sport.
Three main activity themes for girls: princesses, domestic chores, dolls.
Total number of female adults photographed: 6.
Total number of male adults photographed: 0.


The ELC is just one example of a large corporation dividing children along sex lines and according to supposed sex roles, that is, according to the imagined abilities, preferences and even duties of either sex. The toys are products of a system, an irresponsible system motivated, not by children’s needs, but by profit.
Although the “L” in ELC stands for “Learning”, studies such as those found in the Journal of Sex Roles (here) have found that the stronger that toys are gender-typed the less supportive they are of optimal development. This is an important issue when we consider that toys make up a large part of a child’s world from a very early age and are very important in laying the foundations for the child’s future attitudes and ideas. After all, children play with toys during some of the most impressionable years of their lives, starting, in the case of the ELC, from before they can read and even before they can understand the spoken language. Patriarchal society passes on specific cultural messages through the medium of toys and, in in this way, reproduces itself. When toys dragoon children into roles thought to be proper to their sex then the potential of all children is limited. There is a great need for this industry to be opened up to the public gaze. This article is only the start.

Who is the ELC?

The Early Learning Centre is a British chain of shops selling toys for very young children. There are 215 stores in the UK and over 80 international stores in 19 countries across the world. Over 80% of products sold are own brand, being designed at a research centre in Hong Kong.

Sexism and The Early Learning Centre: Spread the word – Pin it!