The Family in Pretend Play

Family Dolls


The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.
– Richard Bach



In time, the experiences Greysen and Moon share with us and our extended family will, I hope, help them develop a sense of belonging. As Greysen’s relationships with us (her family) grow, I often speak about us as a family much in the same way I expect most families do. All these conversations and her own interests are reflected in her play.


She imposes her idea of what and who family is on most anything.




Greysen placed the penguins in the top photo together animals and named them Mama, Dad, and identified the third little penguin as herself.  That’s is us at the “aquarium.”  She’s also taken us to the “beach.” Sadly, sister is not with us. This prompted me to think it best to try and get her some representation.


Wooden play people are popular in early childhood classrooms and are often the basis of Waldorf-inspired toys. These unspecific representations of people are ideal for open-ended play so that the person’s “identity” can be designated by children’s imaginations.  In her play so far, Greysen has used whatever she finds to represent people, but I wondered how having family dolls would influence her play.


I bought a couple of these peg dolls, and Mike found some wood pieces from the hardwood store to represent us.  I painted these and handed them off to Mike for some finishing touches.




He added facial features as he sees them – two smiling girls. Lovely. In retrospect, dolls without smiles would have also been useful in play because they would have been able to be used to represent other feelings. Regardless, from the type of play she does already, I imagine that these two wooden gals will have some happy and not so happy days imposed upon them.



When Mike and I painted ourselves, we kept this in mind. Here we stand, expressionless, as a family.


Thinking again about the penguin families, I had a sort of play epiphany. Why hadn’t we collected all her play animals in families?


For all the time and efforts I used to make to try to make connections for the children in the classrooms, it never occurred to me to think about relating the idea of family to the other types of toys that the children use daily.


We recently added these animals to our collection. I love these animals because they are of nice quality and anatomically correct, which means lots of nursing animals.


This “a-ha” moment has changed the way I think about her playthings. Here I am, always trying to think of ways to ensure her play is based on relationships, and I nearly overlooked spontaneous play based on her relationships.




I wonder where else play centered around the idea of family will pop up next?


Sorting the Holiday Gifts: Generous but Gendered

Fisher Price Toy Carriage

On the morning following Christmas, I was recovering from a late evening filled with the type of holiday drama usually reserved for television specials. It was raining, and so we did not bring in any of my daughter’s Christmas gifts, save one.

Now, when we are the ones choosing toys for Greysen to play with, Mike and I follow a few simple guidelines. We know toys are important for her development, but I have not yet fully considered how they may affect her self-identification. In her book, Child, Family, and Community: Family-Centered Early Care and Education (5th Edition) Janet Gonzalez-Mena brings attention to the fact that, “toys play an important part in defining gender roles.” With this in mind, I sit down and watch Greysen move the carriage back and forth. I’m torn between her growing interest in the toy and my concern over the plethora of gender-stereotypical messages this one toy sends. I ask myself, does the theme of this toy really matter?

The Toy in Question

Greysen was given a horse-drawn carriage. A kind and thoughtful gift from a loving family member, the giver remembered that we do not own battery-operated, single-purpose toys. As such, she watched eagerly as Greysen slowly ripped the gift wrapping, revealing the toy within, the Fisher-Price Little People Build ‘n Drive Carriage.

The horse-drawn carriage is part of the “Little People” toy line, which features oversized people and blocks that are easy for younger children to manipulate.

The pink and lavender carriage, with heart-shaped center-capped wheels, rolls easily as my nine month-old daughter pushes it back and forth. The white horse has a long mane, a pink flowered bridle and a heart-themed blanket. A princess and prince sit at the reigns of the carriage. This charmed couple is round and safely stays in my daughter’s hands while she tries to put each of them in her mouth.

Pleased that my daughter now has a few building blocks which she can take apart, put together, and use to create multiple play scenarios, I cringe at one single property that again defies our toy guidelines – color. The blocks, for no other reason than that this set has been determined to be a “girls’ toy” are in shades of pink, purple, baby blue, and embedded with glitter.

Color alone is not going to send my daughter the message that she cannot be or do anything when she grows up, but I can not help but wonder how her toys, as a collection, will affect her belief in female stereotypes.

In the classroom, my biggest gripe with toy color was that they were most often offered only in primary colors. Somehow that choice seems infinitely better than the one I’m faced with now. I still have several questions: How rigidly do I adhere to the guidelines Mike and I have set for her childhood? Is she old enough to really be impacted by the design of the toy? Is the fact that it was a gift more important than the possible concerns I have regarding this toy? I find solace in the big picture. Again, Gonzalez-Mena brings balance to my concerns in Child, Family, and Community: Family-Centered Early Care and Education (5th Edition) by acknowledging the importance of what children play with, but also by emphasizing the importance of whom they play with, especially as they age.