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Toys story! The battle of the sexes

New campaign calls on shops to classify toys by theme, not gender

A box of walkie-talkies "for little adventurers everywhere" sits on one side of the display; on the other, a microphone invites budding pop stars to "sing along to your favourite music".

But there is a catch: the mini explorers must be male and the soloists female. Or so says Marks & Spencer, which sells the walkie-talkies under its skull-and-crossbones embossed "Boy Stuff" brand, and the microphone via its "Lil' Miss Arty" label.

The high street giant is one of 11 retailers castigated in a report for promoting certain toys to boys and others to girls. Parents are calling on shops to stop classifying toys by gender and to "let toys be toys".

Other offenders, as named in a survey of stores and websites across the UK and Ireland, include the supermarkets Asda and Tesco, the department store groups Wilkinsons and Debenhams, and the toy retailers Toys R Us and The Entertainer. TK Maxx also fared badly based on the number of signs it had marking separate "boys" and "girls" toys areas.

Psychologists caution that categorising toys by gender could stop children playing with certain toys, potentially limiting their options in later life.

Maya Forstater, 39, a self-employed researcher from Hertfordshire and mother of two, who collated the survey results, said yesterday: "We want retailers to organise toys by themes such as construction, role play, arts and crafts, science, fantasy, rather than by sex."

The campaign, which was started by a handful of frustrated mothers, has already prompted one major retailer to change its stance.

Next said it was "misleading and inappropriate" to call certain toys "stuff for boys … when they could delight children of either gender". The chain plans to "look at other ways of segmenting our toy range into easy-to-shop categories next Christmas".

Among the findings from the Let Toys be Toys survey were: three times as many stores promoted construction toys, such as Lego and Mega Bloks, to boys as to girls; four times as many stores suggested play kitchens were suitable for girls rather than boys; and that three times as many stores thought girls would rather do something craft related than boys.

Heather Williams, a medical physicist for the NHS who campaigns to get more women into science, said: "Children shouldn't feel they have to fit into a certain mould. Science kits tend to be suggested toys for boys but the appetite to explore is in no way limited to boys."

Melissa Hines, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge who has studied infants' preferences for toys and colours, said segregating toys by gender "probably makes children more likely to prefer toys that are labelled as for children of their own sex".

Kate Bellingham, an engineer and former BBC Tomorrow's World presenter, joined the call for "toy classifications rather than gender classifications", adding: "Many female engineers I know played with 'boys' toys as children. They developed a confidence in the basics of physics without realising it, and it felt normal for them to pursue their interest."

Some retailers claimed their customers preferred gender signposting. Debenhams' toys buyer said, "Customer feedback has indicated it's easier to shop when they are split in this way".

Ceri Lawrence, 36, an employment lawyer from London and mother of two boys, disagreed, but said purchasing decisions came down to parental choice. "We choose not to buy them certain types of 'boys' toys' such as guns, fighting robots and machines. That said, I know that Joseph [pictured above] will be asking Father Christmas for a light sabre and the dilemma is whether or not he'll be disappointed on Christmas morning!"