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Why one CEO believes the toy industry needs to forgo gender labels

It’s been nearly a month since Target ignited debate across the United States by moving toward gender-neutral toy labeling. While the initial outcry over the retail giant’s decision may have abated somewhat, the issue is still a salient one, as the gender gap between young boys and girls continues to be a pain point in issues ranging from education to playtime.

With an ever growing body of evidence that suggests that children are quickly socialized to abide by existing stereotypes regarding their academic and technical capabilities (boys are better at math, while girls are better at English), finding a way to combat this bias from the start is becoming more and more important. And one company is looking to do so through their toys. Don Coolidge, the CEO and co-founder of Elemental Path and creator of CogniToys, firmly believes that the toy industry should forgo gender labels to ensure that children feel the freedom to choose toys regardless of gender stereotypes, leading to a more equitable environment even at an elementary stage. 

CogniToys, described as “Internet connected smart toys that learn and grow with a child,” is meant to “work with each child on a personal level, adapting to their likes and interests,” Coolidge tells DT. A cross between a robot and a doll, the IBM Watson backed device allows children to ask it questions, give it commands, hear and create stories, “listen to knock-knock jokes and so much more.” The more a child plays with the CogniToy, the more customizable it becomes, ultimately resulting in a personalized experience that is as fun as it is educational.

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“Built into the play experience are a number of custom modules that engage the child in educational play,” the website explains, “including rhyming, spelling, vocabulary, mathematics, and much more. As the interaction increase so will the challenge of the educational content continuing to become more challenging as the child learns.” And because learning should not be a gendered process, CogniToys is almost inherently independent of the normal stereotypes that accompany children’s playthings. As Coolidge told DT, “Gender neutrality did come a bit easier for CogniToys because it is more technologically advanced.” This puts the Elemental Path products a step ahead of, say, Target, who may be removing the labels, but are still faced with the challenge of fundamentally doing away with the inherent biases in some toys. 

CogniToys, on the other hand, set out with the intent of being as gender neutral as possible. Said Coolidge, “We decided that the very first prototype design should be a bright, neon green as opposed to blue or pink, to encourage all children to play with the toy. Even though we are now offering the toy in green, pink, and blue, we find what is more important that just designing a gender-neutral toy is encouraging children to understand that the color of the toy they choose shouldn’t be based on gender. Children should be able to choose a CogniToy of any color without judgment.”

And while it once seemed as though more technical toys appealed more to boys than to girls, Coolidge says that CogniToys has seen widespread appeal across sexes, perhaps because the toy was “built under the assumption [that the makers] should predefine the content and experience of the toy as little as possible.” Rather than “defining what a child’s choice ‘should be’ based on their gender,” Coolidge allows children to exercise their autonomy in choosing how they want to play and interact with their new smart toy. He noted, “If a child likes math, he or she can play more math games. If they like stories, they can create stories. We give an overall structure to content and let a child explore that content and determine how they want to engage.”

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Ultimately, what sets Elemental Path products apart from other “smart” toys is the degree of control CogniToys gives back to the user. As Coolidge explained, “There’s no boy or girl version of the technology — everything is truly unique to each child. Gender isn’t a factor in how the toy learns and promotes learning with each individual child.” He continued, “If a girl is interested in cars or sports, then the toy will begin to cater to those interests … If a boy is interested in dolls or say, ballet, the same applies.”

The most important thing, Coolidge says, is “allowing freedom of choice instead of stating how a child should or should not act.” After all, he questions, “Isn’t part of growing up exploration?” An excellent question, Mr. Coolidge, and one that CogniToys is helping children across the U.S. answer.