But when Snook learned of the Lego Friends line geared specifically towards girls, her usually warm reception of the brand's products was far more cool.
The collection included a car — an item that may typically appeal to her 10-year-old, who enjoys books, games and activities with a questing or active element. But Snook said the Friends characters are larger than regular Lego mini-figurines. When her son realized the line didn't pair well with their existing sets, he wasn't interested.
"I understand that boys and girls have different ways of playing and it's been documented and it's scientifically proven. But I'm from the nature and nurture theory on this one," said the Ottawa-based Snook, who works in web development and is behind the blog Spydergrrl.com.
"I think it's just as much a product of cultural bias as it is of biological tendencies and that the more that we promote treating boys and girls as separate groups with different interests, then we're actually teaching them that they're different.
"The idea of actually creating toys where we're telling them to play separately is really frustrating."
Despite facing backlash from those critical of the girl-specific branding and marketing of Lego Friends, it did little damage the toymaker's bottom line. According to the Lego Group's 2012 annual report, Lego Friends was the fourth bestselling product line, more than doubling initial sales forecasts during its first year on the market.
Concept development for the line spanned four years and involved more than 3,500 girls and their mothers. It was aimed at understanding the segment of girls previously not attracted to playing with Lego and assessing what they would expect from a construction toy.
"The girls we talked to let us understand that they really wanted a Lego offering that mirrors what the boys experience, but in a way that fulfills their unique desire for redesign and details and combined with realistic themes in community and friendship," Lego Group vice-president Nanna Ulrich Gudum said in a statement in February.
While branding and promotion of products along gender lines remains a contentious issue, there has been a movement towards dissolving certain divisions of toys.
London department store Harrods has redesigned its toy department to organize it by theme rather than by gender. Swedish toy firm Top-Toy published a gender-neutral catalogue in which boys were shown playing with a kitchen set and hair dryer and a girl was shown shooting a toy gun. Toys "R'' Us in the U.K. recently pledged to move away from gender-specific marketing of toys.
In an emailed statement to The Canadian Press, Liz MacDonald, vice-president of marketing and store planning for Toys "R" Us Canada, said the retailer regularly features girls and boys playing with all different types of toys in its advertising.
MacDonald said there are no gender-specific toy sections in their stores which are merchandised by product category. However, just like Amazon, and websites for toymakers Mattel and Hasbro, toys are sorted by gender on the retailer's Canadian site.
"While we do not have girls and boys designations in our stores, these designations are consistently among the top searches being used by parents, grandparents and other gift givers online," MacDonald said.
In February, Hasbro unveiled an Easy-Bake Oven 50th anniversary model in gender-neutral black, blue and silver. The model had been 18 months in development before the company announced the move last December after meeting with New Jersey teen McKenna Pope. Her online petition asking the toymaker to make an Easy-Bake Oven attractive to all children garnered tens of thousands of signatures.
Sara Grimes, assistant professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto, said it's not an issue of toys introducing particular gender roles or stereotypes but rather reinforcing those which already exist and prevail in the broader culture.
"You can find all kinds of toys with vacuum cleaners and cooking that are very much encoded in that kind of '50s-style association of domesticity with women.... And in more recent years, that's definitely extended to things like beauty and fashion," said Grimes.
"It's not that these things are necessarily untrue or detrimental, but it's pervasiveness of those limited number of scripts," she added. "The idea of domesticity of beauty and fashion, things that have been associated with girls and women for decades continue to be some of the most prominent themes that you see in girls' toys."
Grimes said the step towards removing some of the "visual segregation" in toy stores is important.
"It says to those kids who want to maybe play with the construction toys — even though the construction toy has blue packaging and a bunch of boys on the cover — that it might be OK for them to do that. But the next step is, of course, to open up all toys so that kids don't feel like they have to trangress an unspoken rule in order to play with something that interests them."
Laura Wiese, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Toy Association, said she thinks it's difficult for parents to change their mindsets when it comes to toy purchases.
"I think a lot of parents tend to feel that their child might be more interested in something that is more girl-like or more boy-like, depending on whether they have a boy or a girl," she said.
"What we do as manufacturers and as an industry is to ensure that we have a broad spectrum of toys that appeal to all genders, and there's a lot of brands that, I would say, were stereotypically girl properties that boys have bought into."
Wiese pointed to the Lalaloopsy rag dolls which features a line of male characters. Licensed toys from popular animated films like "Cars" and "Kung Fu Panda" are examples of gender-neutral play items with mass appeal, she noted.
"I think boys and girls are always going to play differently in general," said Wiese. "But I do think that we are able to see now that there is more crossover, and I think the ability for siblings to play together is a lot more available now."
Today's Parent editor-in-chief Karine Ewart said the magazine's annual guide has stopped recommending divisions of toys by gender, instead distinguishing items by age and interest.
Mother to an 11-year-old daughter and three sons — eight-year-old twins and a 7-year-old — Ewart said her guys "didn't blink for a second" when it came to playing with a colourful crossbow geared towards girls.
"They keep going back to it because it's fun and it shoots things, but they didn't really notice that it was pink because it was a cool toy for them," she recalled.
"I think that that is something that the manufacturers are considering also in this grand scheme of things — they want to make toys that really are appealing, but if they can hook it on some sort of angle, that's going to work for them a little bit as well."
Beyond packaging and marketing, Ewart said what matters most is having parents determine which toys are of interest to kids and how to nurture those qualities positively.
"Take a step back...and even put them in a toy store and let them navigate and see what attracts their attention rather than thinking: 'Oh, my son likes Lego so I'm going to go buy Lego,'" she said.
"Why don't you let them experiment a little bit and see what really catches their eye and interests them and even triggers something new in their imagination, because that's really what it all comes down to, of course. We want to allow their imaginations to grow."
— With files from The Associated Press
www.todaysparent.comSuggest a correction