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

cognitoys gender neutral toys for kids screen shot 2015 09 02 at 6 49 58 pm
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.

“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.”

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.

Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Smart Home

These are the 13 best games to play on your new Google Home

Google Home is a handy device, but did you know you can play games with it? There are a ton to play, and we tested them all. Here are some of favorites that you can play on your Google Home device.

The hottest Nintendo Switch games you can get right now

The Nintendo Switch's lineup started off small, but games have steadily released as the console continues through its second year. Here are the best Nintendo Switch games available now.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in March, from Buster Scruggs to Roma

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

SpaceX experiences problem during test, Crew Dragon capsule may have exploded

SpaceX has experienced a problem during the testing of its Crew Dragon capsule. During the engine test firing at Cape Canaveral yesterday afternoon, an unspecified anomaly occurred which lead to plumes of smoke rising from the test site.
Emerging Tech

The grid of the future will be powered by … giant subterranean bagpipes?

In order to transition to a more renewable-focused energy system, we need to scale up our grid storage capacity --- and our existing methods aren't going to cut it. Could compressed air be the key?
Emerging Tech

Beresheet crash caused by manual command, but reflector device may have survived

Details are emerging about what may have gone wrong with spacecraft Beresheet's failed moon landing. A manual command was entered which led to a chain reaction. But NASA still hopes to salvage use of its Laser Retroreflector Array device.
Emerging Tech

The oldest type of molecule in the universe has been located at last

A milestone in the development of the early universe was the combination of helium and hydrogen atoms into a molecule called helium hydride. But strangely enough, this ancient molecule has never been detected in space before now.
Emerging Tech

Mercury’s wobble as it spins reveals that it has an inner solid core

Scientists have long wondered what the inside of Mercury looks like, and they now have strong evidence that the planet has a large and solid metallic core. The data for the new findings was collected by the now-defunct MESSENGER mission.
Emerging Tech

Gravitational forces at heart of Milky Way shaped this star cluster like a comet

Hubble has captured the stunning Messier 62 cluster. The cluster is warped, with a long tail which stretches out to form a shape like a comet. It is thought this distortion is due to Messier 62's proximity to the center of the galaxy.
Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.