Diversity in toys matters for children's mental health - say parents

Recent research shows parents want more representation of disabilities and visible differences in toys. So what’s changed?

Rose Ayling-Ellis poses with the first ever Barbie doll with a behind-the-ear hearing aid
Rose Ayling-Ellis poses with the first ever Barbie doll with a behind-the-ear hearing aid

As we creep ever closer towards Christmas, ploughing through the avalanche of adverts for children’s toys becomes a seasonal hazard.

There can be no escape from the barrage of hype waxing lyrical about this year's “must-haves” for our little people – something for everyone.

But amid this merry carnival it’s easy to overlook the uncomfortable reality that some children are still trying to find that elusive toy that mirrors themselves.

Rainbow High's new series of dolls features characters with vitiligo and albinism

Half of British parents would like to see more representation of disabilities and visible differences in toys and on children’s entertainment platforms, and believe this can help normalise differences and break stereotypes, according to recent research.

Top of the wish-list are more toys and characters with disabilities (52 percent), different ethnicities (44 percent) and visible differences (44 percent).

And it seems that this appetite for more inclusivity is informing decisions on what to buy and watch.

The research, by toy brand Rainbow High from MGA Entertainment, revealed that 79 percent of parents said that diversity is important to them when purchasing toys, with this figure rising to 88 percent for younger parents, aged 19 to 24.

In the survey of 1,000 British parents, more than half of respondents believed that diversity and representation in toy brands is crucial for helping children to develop self-confidence and more positive friendship attitudes towards their peers, particularly those with disabilities.

In August, a Barbie doll with a behind-the-ear hearing aid went on sale across the UK.

The latest addition to the brand's stable was accompanied by a Ken doll with vitiligo, a Fashionista doll with prosthetic leg and a wheelchair Barbie.

Marking the launch, Strictly star and actor Rose Ayling-Ellis teamed up with a cast of diverse talent to pose in front of the cameras with dolls that reflect and celebrate their differences.

Rose, who has brought deaf inclusion to the forefront of national conversation this year, recalled how as a little girl, she would draw hearing aids onto her Barbie dolls to make them look like her.

Perhaps best known for her role in Eastenders, the actor was propelled to wider attention as the first deaf contestant to appear in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing last year – going on to win the competition.

Children will have much more choice than their parents and grandparents did when choosing dolls this Christmas.

Characters with vitiligo and albinism are among the latest dolls to join the Rainbow High brand, which is billed as “inspiring creativity and expressing one’s true self.”

As someone who has grown up with vitiligo, Natalie Ambersley understands the importance of children being able to see themselves represented in toys and entertainment.

She is now a trustee at The Vitiligo Society, which supports people living with the long-term skin condition in the UK.

“It’s great to see brands like Rainbow High introducing dolls with visible differences,” said Natalie. “It’s really important to raise awareness and its equally important toys like Rainbow High are diverse and inclusive so children can understand how everyone is unique and encourage others to feel confident in their skin.”

Arguably, issues of self-confidence, attitudes and acceptance towards others, and mental health have never been more important for children.

With more and more toy brands also getting their own entertainment shows on the likes of YouTube and Netflix, parents want to see representation within the characters on screen, with 49 percent agreeing it helps to normalise differences and break down stereotypes and 35 percent saying it can help prevent stigmatisation.

More than a third of parents (34 percent) believe increased representation has a positive impact on children’s mental health, according to the research.

Michelle Lilley, marketing director for UK and Ireland at MGA Entertainment, said: “Championing diversity and inclusion is – and has always been - central to MGA Entertainment. Brands such as Bratz and L.O.L. Surprise! have led the way on representation, both in terms of ethnicities and visible differences.

“This recent launch from Rainbow High continues this commitment and we’re proud to have launched a new series of dolls that features characters with vitiligo and albinism.

"These characters also take central stage in our entertainment content – on Netflix and YouTube– as we know how important it is for children to see representation on all platforms. We’re not surprised to see that half of parents agree that seeing these characters has a positive impact on a child’s perception of the world and are seen as learning tools, as children are exposed to more content on digital platforms today than they were 20 years ago.”

Viewers of preschoolers’ favourite, Peppa Pig, were recently introduced to the show's first same-sex couple when Penny Polar Bear drew a picture of her two mummies and told her playgroup that one is a doctor and one “cooks spaghetti.”

And in another milestone, earlier this month Mattel announced the introduction of Bruno the Brake Car, the first autistic character in the iconic Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go series and franchise.