How to make sure your little one's toys and books are well-represented

This post was originally written by Vese Aghoghovbia, founder of Philly & Friends for Absolutely Mama Magazine November 2020 issue

Let’s talk representation, but before we do, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves - are we teaching our children to love truly? One might wonder what representation has to do with love. However, if we dig deeper, we uncover one of the truths about love - we are only able to love what we understand, and can only understand what we are exposed to.

People often think talks about representation are reserved for the underrepresented. However, I believe the fight for ‘representation’ is for the betterment of us all. We all benefit from seeing a full picture of what the world looks like. Particularly for children, it broadens their horizon. When we teach and expose our children to other worlds and possibilities, they learn to make room for all.

Neuroplasticity suggests our brains take shape and form connections based on our learning experiences. Research says, as early as age two, a child starts reasoning based on race, by two and a half, begins to choose playmates based on racial identification and forms racial prejudice by five. Mainly due to the depth of exposure and what they are used to seeing because naturally, we gravitate towards what we know and can identify with. This is why introducing diversity to our homes, particularly the playroom, is so important. It plays a significant role in the fight for acceptance. By ensuring our children's toy box and bookshelf are diverse, we are teaching them to love genuinely, to understand differences and embrace diversity. We are giving them a beautiful gift of representation. I genuinely believe that children need to see themselves and others represented in the books they read, the toys they play with and the media they consume. Positive representation helps children grow up with a secure self-image, appreciating themselves as they are and learning to respect others.

This is why I started Philly & Friends, a children’s lifestyle brand that aims to add a drop of colour in the sea of Children’s products. We create beautifully illustrated books, wall art, toys designed to instil self-love & confidence while providing representation. 

So, take a moment to reflect, what books, toys and media are our kids being exposed to? How representative are they of varying cultures? I understand that this is uncharted waters for many, and most are only just beginning to understand the need for and importance of a diverse toy box. Over the last few months, I have received lots of messages from parents who feel lost and don’t know where to start. Before you get started, I’ll encourage you to check your unconscious bias, the way you speak about others in front of your kids and what personal changes you need to make –  the change begins with us. Next, declutter. We've all been there, bought something on a whim and then realised we don't need it, or maybe our kids have outgrown it, or perhaps it no longer aligns with our principles. This is an excellent time to declutter the toy box. Next, take stock. Go through your books, toys and favourite TV shows, Categorise. On a scale of 1 to 10, how diverse are they? 

Once you know where you stand, these are five simple but effective ways to ensure your child’s toys are well represented.

  1. Books are such a powerful way to introduce kids to different cultures, races and experiences. Does your child’s library display a sea of colours, concepts, abilities? This is one of the reasons I wrote my debut children’s book, Who Do I See in the Mirror?, which was chosen by Hello! Magazine as one of the best 15 children’s books on diversity. Do you have a mix of books with male and female lead characters? Books with girl characters aren't just for girls; they are for boys too. What about characters with physical challenges?

  2. Dolls are an excellent way to teach empathy; they provide a physical representation of diversity. If children can touch, care for and play with a diverse range of dolls, they will build kindness and acceptance towards it. Brands like Thimble & Dolls create dolls with varying skin tones. Rosa & Bo recently released a multi-tone nesting babies set. ‘Lakeshore Learning produce soft & safe figures representing differently-abled children and their adaptive equipment! A diverse range of dolls is a great way to offer children the chance to role-play and learn positive awareness and inclusion towards different races and individuals with physical challenges.

  3. Board & Card Games are a great way to improve concentration and attention span, fine motor skills and problem-solving skills while introducing the concept of diversity. Kids like to replay board and card games over again, improving their memory. This is such a great avenue to introduce games such as I Never Forget a Face Memory Matching Game and Super Sapien card games that introduce different cultures and role models. 

  4. Media: What shows do they watch? Are they as representative as possible? How are different cultures being represented? Children form a lot of opinions from TV Shows and Apps. It's crucial to ensure they are not building stereotypes in their growing minds.

  5. Childcare: What are your childcare arrangements and how committed are they to promoting positive representation? Are they taking active steps to introduce diversity? How diverse is their staff? If you are unsure, speak to them about their plans and policies in place to raise a broad and diverse curriculum. Things are simple as early learning posters can introduce the much-needed diversity in any playroom, classroom or nursery. You can download a free early learning printable here to use for yourself or share with your childcare provider. 

Family life plays a significant role in the thought-formation of a child. So, the place to introduce diversity and positive representation is in the home. If we are intentional about raising well-rounded, empathetic children, the toybox is one of the most effective ways to do so. Through a well-represented playroom, we teach our children to love. 

As Nelson Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

At Philly & Friends, we occasionally share tips and ideas on books, toys and resources that promote positive representation. You can follow us on social media or check out our blog for parenting, play and educational inspiration