Navigating the toy aisle

Toys are important for your child’s development. But choosing from the multitude of toys sold in stores can be a daunting task. What criteria should you keep in mind? Is it better to stick to educational toys? Are gender-specific toys old-fashioned? We tackle these questions and more in the following articles.


Knowing what to look for

Kids love toys because they’re fun to play with. But they can also be incredible learning tools! The great news for parents is that the best toys are often the simplest.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Kids love toys because they’re fun to play with. But they can also be valuable learning tools! The great news for parents is that the best toys are often the simplest.

All toys can be educational in some way. “The simple act of playing allows your child to learn new things and develop their skills,” says educational psychologist Rolande Filion, co-creator of the ESAR classification system for evaluating toys and games.

Are so-called educational toys the only kind that can help children learn? Generally, toys branded as “educational” are designed to help children acquire specific knowledge: numbers, shapes, letters, and so on. While these types of toys certainly have benefits, they aren’t essential to a child’s development. “There’s no proof that they’re superior to other toys,” says occupational therapist Francine Ferland. “What’s more, they often have a singular purpose, which leaves little room for the child’s imagination.”

Imagination and stimulation

The best toys can be played with in many different ways. “My daughter has a set of toy magnets that are shaped like parts of different animals,” says Louis-Antoine Lassonde, father of two-year-old Madeleine and nine-month-old Jérôme. “She mixes and matches them to create imaginary creatures.” Two-year-old Matteo, on the other hand, likes blocks. “At first he was just stacking them, but now he’s making things like cars and planes,” says Matteo’s dad, Bruno Tremblay, who also has a four-month-old named Adamo.

Playing with toys is stimulating on multiple levels. “My daughter treats all of her dolls like they’re her babies,” says Fay Gilbert, mother of five-year-old Elsie-Ye Ni. “She gives them baths, feeds them, dresses them, takes them for walks, puts them to bed, and even scolds them sometimes.” When engaging in this kind of make-believe, Elsie is improving her language and fine motor skills, exercising her imagination, developing autonomy, expressing her emotions, and more!

Toys also promote sensory and motor development. “Ankle rattles, for instance, help babies become more aware of their bodies and figure out their limits,” says pediatric physiotherapist Marie-Annick Béliveau. “To reach the rattle, they have to work their stomach muscles to bring their feet toward their hands.” Another example is hopper balls, which can help toddlers develop muscle strength as they learn to keep from toppling over.

Just how important are toys?
According to occupational therapist Ferland, play is essential to a child’s development, whereas toys are playtime accessories. “Toys stimulate and reinforce play, but they aren’t essential,” she explains. “A child doesn’t need toys to have fun mimicking animal sounds or building a snowman.”

4 key criteria


“Play comes down to enjoyment,” says Filion. “It’s what motivates a child to keep playing with the same familiar toys.”

Safety and durability

It’s a good idea to check the quality and sturdiness of your child’s toys, as some break easily and may be unsafe. If your child is under the age of three, keep them away from toys with small pieces, which can be a choking hazard.


A child should be able to play with their toy however and wherever they want. Versatile toys encourage your little one to use their imagination and actively participate in the game. They also take longer to outgrow. Building blocks, action figures, and modelling clay are all examples of versatile toys. Balls are great options, too. “Babies will start by crawling towards a ball as it rolls across the floor,” says Béliveau. “As they get bigger, they’ll learn to roll it toward someone, bounce it, kick it, play catch . . .”


It’s important to consider your child’s preferences when choosing a toy for them, but it’s also good to broaden their horizons. Before buying a toy, ask yourself if it will offer any new benefits to your child. How will it stimulate them? What can they learn by playing with it? “Ideally, you want the new toy to complement your child’s other toys, not be a carbon copy,” says Ferland.

Can you trust the age rating indicated by the manufacturer? Age ratings often provide a good reference point. But if the age range is broad, it’s better to take it with a grain of salt. “For example, some toys are rated as suitable for children aged three and under, but a six-month-old won’t be interested in the same things as a three-year-old, and vice versa,” explains Ferland. “In addition to your child’s age, it’s important to consider where they are in their development when buying a toy.”

Similarly, avoid picking out an overly complicated toy for your child, even if you think they’re advanced for their age. For playtime to be enjoyable, kids need toys that test their abilities without being too challenging or too easy.

Dial down the volume
A lot of toys make noise. It’s best to look for toys with a volume adjustment or mute setting. Young children tend to put toys that make music or sounds much too close to their ears, which can damage their hearing. In addition, toys that make a sound at the push of a button don’t require much imagination. With that in mind, before you buy a musical or noise-making toy, ask yourself whether it offers your child any specific benefits. Silent toys like trucks, dolls, and stuffed animals are often just as fun to play with; better yet, there’s no need for batteries. For toys where sound plays an essential role, it’s recommended to turn the volume down to the lowest setting or to cover the speakers with a bit of tape.

Toys on a budget

Children often have lots of toys, but the vast majority of them usually go unused. “There comes a point when a child has too many toys,” says Filion. “It’s better to prioritize quality over quantity. Parents can also organize toy swaps with friends or borrow items from toy and game libraries, and even certain regular libraries. It’s an inexpensive and eco-friendly way to give kids access to a wide variety of toys.” Rotating the toys you have at home by keeping some in storage for later is another good option.

Everyday objects can also be a great source of entertainment. What child doesn’t love playing with plastic containers? They can be great bath toys and even musical drums. “Empty paper towel rolls can be turned into pirate binoculars, cushions can become thrones, empty plastic bottles can be used as bowling pins—I could go on and on,” says Ferland.

Then, of course, there’s the cardboard box. Large boxes are just waiting to be transformed into tunnels, cars, castles, robots, and more. “You can also use boxes to create obstacle courses,” suggests Béliveau. “Young children can spend hours stacking up different-size boxes or hiding things in them.”

The other day, Elsie-Ye Ni and her dad, Martin Forgues, crafted some accessories for her superhero costume. “We made a fantastic belt out of a pie plate, tape, and paint,” he says. What a great example of toy-making on a dime. Sometimes, all you need is some supplies and a dash of imagination to have fun!

The verdict on gender-specific toys

Toys for girls: dolls, play kitchens, and makeup kits with plenty of pink, purple, and sequins. Toys for boys: building games, superhero figurines, and trucks in primary colours. When it comes to shopping for kids, it’s hard to escape the gender divide.

Toys for girls: dolls, play kitchens, and makeup kits with plenty of pink, purple, and sequins. Toys for boys: building games, superhero figurines, and trucks in primary colours. When it comes to shopping for kids, it’s hard to escape the gender divide.

The practice of labelling toys by gender has been criticized for many years, notably on social media. Today, many stores have dropped gender labels. However, we haven’t crossed the pink-and-blue divide just yet. The next time you walk through a toy store, pay attention to the colours, packaging, and ads used to market each item. How often do you see little girls playing with cars or little boys, with dolls?

Gender-stereotyped toys rose in popularity in the 1990s. “Gendered toys are more common today than they were in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Dr. Francine Descarries, a professor at UQAM’s Department of Sociology. “Think about all the princess toys on the market, or the number of castle and teahouse play sets aimed at young girls.”

Why is the gender distinction so ingrained? It’s first and foremost a marketing issue. “If you buy your daughter a pink bike, you probably won’t ask her to share it with her little brother,” says Dr. Descarries. “You’ll simply buy him his own. When a manufacturer sells two bikes instead of one, they double their profits.”

Are these preferences innate or acquired?

Like many people, you might think that children are naturally drawn to toys that reflect their gender. In reality, choosing gender-specific toys is primarily a learned behaviour.

At 12 months, all babies—boys and girls—prefer to look at dolls rather than cars,” says Dr. Diane Poulin-Dubois, professor of psychology and member of the Centre for Research in Human Development at Concordia University. “This isn’t surprising, as babies are fascinated by human faces. However, one study that I collaborated on revealed that gender preferences appear at around 18 months. At that age, girls start to prefer dolls and boys start to prefer cars.”

What happens in these short months? “Before a child is even born, their parents and relatives often create a gendered environment,” says educational psychologist Rolande Filion. “The baby’s room, clothes, and toys are all chosen to match their sex.

Everything that your child experiences, sees, and hears helps shape their personality and their perception of men and women. A child’s preference for gender-specific toys is therefore largely due to social factors. What’s more, research has shown that the brain changes as we learn and experience new things.

“If a child eventually shows a preference for stereotypically gendered toys, it’s often because they’ve been exposed to this type of toy since birth. Girls aren’t born loving princesses, and boys aren’t born loving trucks! These inclinations are social constructions,” says Filion.

Much more than a toy

One of the main issues with gendered toys is that they endorse harmful stereotypes that contribute to gender inequality. Toys marketed to girls are often related to household tasks, infant care, and beauty, whereas those marketed to boys are all about action, exploration, and adventure. “This sends a clear message to children about societal roles and expectations,” says Dr. Descarries. “While girls are taught to take care of others and focus on their appearance, boys are taught to be strong, brave, and dominant.”

According to a study by Dr. Poulin-Dubois and her fellow researchers, infants understand this distinction even before they learn to talk. “Girls aged 18 months and boys aged 23 months can already associate a stereotypically gendered toy to its corresponding gender,” says Dr. Poulin-Dubois.

My child only likes toys that correspond to their gender
If your child has mostly been exposed to toys that “match” their gender, it’s only natural that they prefer them. They’re simply doing what they’ve been taught. But it’s not too late to broaden their horizons and introduce them to something new. To encourage them to use a new toy, try joining in during playtime. Who knows? Your son may love taking care of his teddy bear with Dad! Keep in mind that it’s important to avoid putting pressure on your child. Let them choose whichever toy interests them.

Focus on variety

A child who is only ever given toys that correspond to their gender may feel pressured to fit into a mould. For example, girls who often play with toys that promote physical attractiveness can develop a negative body image early on, which may negatively impact their self-esteem. Conversely, boys who play with nothing but superhero toys and action games may be more likely to engage in risky behaviours.

Plus, stereotypically gendered toys can limit a child’s interests and influence their future career choices. “One of the reasons we see so few girls studying engineering, architecture, or computer science is because they’re generally not encouraged to play with toys that aren’t labelled as feminine,” says Filion.

Different toys promote different skills. “For example, building blocks improve spatial abilities, while dolls and imitation games develop language and social skills,” says Dr. Poulin-Dubois.

Offering a variety of toys is recommended to support your child’s development and help them reach their full potential. That’s exactly what Véronique Poupart-Monette and her partner are trying to do with their two-year-old, Madeleine, and nine-month-old, Jérôme. “We think it’s important for our kids to play with dolls and hairbrushes as well as trucks and tools. It allows them to discover their own preferences and talents,” says Véronique.

The idea isn’t to prevent girls from playing with dollhouses, or boys from playing with race cars, but to avoid imposing restrictions on their choices. “Toys shouldn’t be gendered,” says Dr. Descarries. “When you give a child a variety of toys, you’re telling them that they can grow up without limitations and become whoever they want to be based on their interests and personality.”

Double standards

When a girl plays with tools or dresses up as a superhero, she’s applauded. Generally, parents and the public want to fight discrimination against girls and offer them every opportunity. But to this day, reactions tend to be negative when a boy plays with a doll.

“Some parents worry that their son will be teased,” says occupational therapist Francine Ferland. Others mistakenly believe that toys can influence sexual orientation. “Sexual orientation is in no way determined or influenced by toys,” says Ferland.

Thankfully, parents are increasingly open when it comes to choosing toys for their sons. Christina D’Alesio and Bruno Tremblay, the parents of two-year-old Matteo and four-month-old Adamo, gave their eldest a doll to prepare him for the birth of his little brother. They also bought him a play kitchen. “Sometimes he pretends to cook meals, but he still prefers playing with his toy cars and building blocks,” they say.

Like girls, boys benefit from being exposed to different experiences. “A big part of a little boy’s life is spent at home, in a domestic environment, but stereotypically masculine toys don’t prepare them for taking care of a younger sibling or sharing household chores,” says Dr. Descarries. “Playing with dolls can help them develop empathy and encourage them to think about others. These skills are essential regardless of gender.”


Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, November–December 2019
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist


Photos: GettyImages/Doble-d, Diane39, Martin Prescott and Solstock, and Maxim Morin