How to empower girls through play

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We like to think that we’ve come a long way in terms of inclusivity. On the whole, we have – until we look at how our children play.

The toys we’re giving our children are more gender-segregated than they were half a century ago. Mothers of daughters are more likely to worry about the threat of injury when their child is having fun at the playground, instead of encouraging their behaviour (what boys get).

Gender still plays a role in how toys are marketed to children, and STEM toys are three times more likely to be targeted at boys.

Lots of research has been done on play, both in terms of active play that will ensure kids grow up healthy and less sedentary, as well as the importance of imagination-driven play, which helps develop kids’ social, emotional, creative and problem-solving skills.

READ MORE: What is the dream gap – and what can we do about it?

Play is how kids learn – the question is, what do you want to teach them? Here are some ways to help girls feel empowered through play.

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Encourage them to play outdoors

Kids and screen time – whether a mobile phone obsession or wanting to play yet another round of Fortnite – doesn’t just have implications for potential developmental delays in language and social skills, it also means that kids aren’t spending enough time outside.

All that time indoors means they’re much more used to being sedentary – and worried about getting dirty – then they would be if they spent more time communing with Mother Nature and doing what we used to as children: building forts, picking flowers, befriending ants and snails, making mud pies. New figures from the WHO state that toddlers should be spending at least three hours a day doing various physical activities: running, jumping and playing. The younger you get girls comfortable and confident in themselves outdoors, the better, especially because society still conditions women to feel at odds with their natural selves. Spending time doing nature-y things is good for body and mind, encouraging them to explore and climb, to feel strong and not to care about messy hair or muddy patches on their clothes. If you’re trapped indoors due to inclement weather, you can try the latest Scandi craze which gets girls moving: hobby-horsing.

READ MORE: These picture books are all about empowering young girls

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Consider the toys you buy them

While we’d love to think that buying our children a doctor’s dress-up set is the recipe we need to ensure they grow up wanting to save lives, toys can’t quite guarantee what our children’s ambitions are going to be. However, you can step outside of the box when it comes to encouraging what your girls play with, giving them coding kits, building blocks, gender-neutral toys like Play-Doh and STEM sets from their earliest days. Think beyond your own daughters, nieces and goddaughters and consider the gifts you’ll be giving to other girls for those zillions of birthday parties your child will inevitably attend. There are so many dolls, books and cool activity sets that emphasise “girl power” these days and encourage curiosity about the world at large, as well as play.

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Make them love reading

By age six, girls are already doubting their own intellectual abilities, according to research (girls think of more boys as “really, really smart” and start to avoid activities and subjects they feel are linked with brilliance). This is why it’s crucial to get girls to love books: not only will they feel confident about their own reading abilities as they progress as independent readers, they’ll also get to read about inspiring, heroic women who changed the world and followed their instincts. For younger readers, there are lots of cool picture books with amazing fictional protagonists, like Ada Twist, Scientist, as well as biography-type books highlighting remarkable women, like She Persisted, to encourage them from a young age.

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Make science their friend

We’ve all read the stats on how women are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields and are aware of the programmes designed to change that, from myriad LEGO science camps to coding courses, which show girls how exciting and fun it is to pursue science subjects. Teach them to love science at home, too, with toys that let them do experiments (yes, even if it’s making slime), robotics toys, building toys and more. Tech Will Save Us has a range to appeal to all ages and personalities, from electro-dough and slime for toddlers to creative coding, synth kits, gamer sets and build-your-own robots. The next five birthdays? Sorted.