Breaking Away from Barbie

I have a five-year-old daughter whose main joy in life seems to be Barbie. We have tried to raise her without gender stereotyping yet she is only into "girl play." How can we encourage her to expand her world of play?


At five-years-old, your daughter is developmentally ready to start looking at what the world around her says "makes her a girl." Even though in your family you have provided her lots of opportunities to explore all kinds of activities, she now has to try on the ideas she sees outside of her family.

A simple trip to the toy store quickly cues children to what are "girl toys" and what are "boy toys." Even children who don't watch TV are surrounded with images of women who are obsessed with their appearance and men who are considered worthy through their accomplishments. Even though she is going through a "Barbie phase" now, it doesn't necessarily mean she will be stuck with a stereotypical definition of what it means to be a girl -- and a woman -- forever.

Help her keep her options open

Here are some things you can do now to help your daughter keep her options open:

• Provide plenty of opportunity for physical play. One of the limitations of traditional "girl play" is that it is non-physical and mostly happens mostly indoors. Make sure your daughter has access to bikes, balls, parks, climbing structures and a variety of other physical activities on a regular basis.

• Buy her one or two of the Barbie things she wants, but not the whole set. One of the problems with many kids' toys is that they don't leave a lot of room for imagination. If you get her only the doll, then she will be encouraged to create her own outfits and props for Barbie, thus increasing her opportunities for creativity.

• Talk to her about Barbie. When she is playing with Barbie or asking for Barbie things, you can ask her what she likes about Barbie. You can let her know you understand her interest in Barbie and then talk about what your concerns are: "I see that you like to play with Barbie and to change her clothes. The thing that concerns me is that Barbie can't play soccer if she wants to, because her feet can only wear high heals. I don't think that is fair."

• Help her expand Barbie's world. You can use her interest in Barbie to open the way for other activities: "I don't really want to buy you a house for Barbie, but I bet we could get some wood (or cardboard) and you could make one for her." You could help her make fishing gear for Barbie or a doctor's uniform.

• Provide opportunities for her to see girls and women in non-stereotypical roles. Do a little research to find out when the girls sports' teams are playing. Take her to watch some games. Check out the construction sites around town. If there are women working, take her to visit. Point out the women do in your family or extended circle of friends that do non-traditional work. And when buying her books, look for ones which show both girls and women in strong, non-stereotypical roles.

• Provide her play opportunities with both boys and girls. Giving her a chance to play with both girls and boys will naturally encourage a broader range of play experiences.

• Provide a wide variety of open-ended play materials. Look at your daughter's collection of toys. Can you tell from looking at them that she's a girl? What kinds of things could you add to broaden her play options? If you're choosing a present for her, imagine for a moment that she is a boy. What would you buy for a boy her age? Building toys? Sports equipment? Tools? Messy activities?

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