Britain is a brilliant and beautiful melting pot of diversity, but walk into any regular high street toy shop, and you’d be hard pushed to find that diversity represented on the shelves.
This was the challenge my husband Rafael and I faced, when we searched for a doll for our then two year old son. Not only did we find that the majority of those dolls were girls dressed in pink, but most were white, and blonde.
Frustrated not only by the lack of diversity being represented, but also that our son at such a young age was already being dictated gender typical roles, we took matters into our own hands. In 2017, we launched a range of four dolls with different ethnicities and genders. The response from parents and children was instant and resounding; positive representation matters.
After our story was published on the BBC last year, we started to receive requests to create dolls with different disabilities. It has always been my long term vision to include more diversity in the range. That’s why this month, we’ve launched a new crowdfunding initiative to produce six more dolls which represent both visible and non-visible disabilities.
A report released by the National Audit released last week suggests that children with special needs and disabilities are being marginalised in mainstream schools. Sadly, this marginalisation is being perpetuated through the toys our children play with too. Despite fifteen percent of the world’s population, and an estimated 770,000 children in the UK living with some form of disability, it’s not currently easy for those children to find themselves represented in the books and toys they play with.
For children with disability, growing up the only one in your class with a prosthetic limb, wearing glasses or hearing aids, and rarely seeing anyone like them positively reflected in toys, books, TV or films, can be isolating and lead to low self-esteem. Play is crucial in helping children develop and learn about the world. Dolls with disabilities are not just for children with disabilities. They can help parents and teachers start conversations about diversity and inclusivity, and help them explain what makes every child unique and special.
The experts agree. According to psychologist Dr. Amber A. Hewitt, a specialist in gendered racial socialization, being exposed to diversity via toys has great benefits for identity development. An inclusive toy box not only promotes positive racial, gender, and cultural identity development, it also encourages inclusion by literally making members of marginalized groups more visible in a child’s daily life.
In my opinion, it’s never too early to introduce inclusivity into your child’s toybox, as long as the toy is offered to a child within its recommended age range as research demonstrates that prejudice and bias start early. Babies start to notice differences in appearance from three months old and children aged between three and five start to apply stereotypes. The earlier we can introduce diversity into the environment around our child, the easier it is to help eliminate prejudice that could form at a later stage.
Children learn from the environment around them and toys are just one part of it. For example, if a child never sees a fish in books or toys, or goes to an aquarium or to the sea, he or she may learn about fish as a fillet in the supermarket, or food on their plate.
We may not know people with diverse backgrounds in our social circle, but it is important to learn about them as it is part of our real world. The purpose of Dolls for All together with its accompanying booklet is to help bridge this gap and provide a tool for parents to talk about diversity and disabilities in a positive way.
Although the big toy brands have started to make efforts to be more representative, there is so much more that can be done. I believe providing more varied toys can not only help children from minority groups or those living with a disability develop a secure self-image, it can also broaden all children’s views, and send a powerful message that everyone and anyone should be included and celebrated.