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Barbie's COVID-19 Frontline Worker Dolls Are a Step Toward a Diverse Toy Box

girl playing with Barbie dolls


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Key Takeaways

  • New additions to Mattel's Barbie line celebrate the courage of real-life frontline COVID-19 workers and promote women in STEM.
  • Hasbro's Potato Head brand also has gone gender-neutral to encourage kids to create their own types of families.
  • Parents can create a more diverse toy box for their kids simply by giving them the freedom to explore toys without interference or direction.

Barbie is the latest toy to celebrate the courage and accomplishment of the healthcare workers who have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most famous doll in the world has welcomed six new peers, who are all based on real-life women in STEM.

One of the women being honored with a one-of-a-kind doll includes emergency room nurse Amy O’Sullivan. O'Sullivan treated the first COVID-19 patient in Brooklyn at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. She then became ill and was intubated but returned to work a few weeks later to continue caring for others.

Some of the others being honored include Audrey Sue Cruz, MD, from Las Vegas, who joined forces with other Asian-American doctors to fight racism and discrimination; Chika Stacy Oriuwa, MD, a psychiatry resident at the University of Toronto, who has advocated against systemic racism in healthcare; and Jacqueline Goes de Jesus, PhD, a biomedical researcher who pioneered the genome sequencing of a COVID-19 variant in Brazil. 

Professor Sarah Gilbert, DBE, who led the development of the University of Oxford vaccine in the U.K., and Kirby White, MD, a general practitioner in Australia who co-founded the Gowns for Doctors initiative which developed a PPE gown that could be laundered and re-used, round out the list of those being honored.

According to Mattel, they wanted to honor the unprecedented courage that these role models showed during such a challenging time. The six people being honored with their own doll were selected based on their community impact and the fact that they will inspire future generations of doll lovers.

The Evolution of the Toy Box

This change is in line with Mattel's efforts to make their Barbie line more inclusive. For instance, their Fashionistas line offers dolls in a range of sizes, shapes, and skin tones. These dolls come with clothing and hair options to let children experiment with different ways of self-expression through doll play

In another effort to promote diversity and inclusivity in the toy department, the Potato Head brand announced earlier this year that “Mr.” would be ditched from the logo. The company clarified that Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head will still be available, explaining that the move was simply one of gender neutrality.

Images released of the new Potato Head boxed sets featured a range of family types on the packaging, including two dads, two moms, and a heterosexual couple. The company's goal is to allow children to create their own families by allowing kids the freedom to mix and match all the parts and pieces.

Toys and Child Development 

Skeptics question whether these moves from global brands are less about diversity and inclusivity and more about boosting profits. But psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, who is the author of the best-selling books "13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do," and "13 Things Strong Kids Do" believes that diverse toys can help kids see that the world is full of different types of people. 

“Toys teach kids about the world and seeing how people might live differently than they do might expand their minds,” she explains. “For some kids, this may also be an opportunity to see a toy that is like them for the first time too.” 

GinaMarie Gurarino, LMHC

Gender-inclusive toys have the potential to encourage self-esteem, self-acceptance, and confidence by minimizing symbols of what it means to be a boy or girl, or what the child should value based on their gender.

— GinaMarie Gurarino, LMHC

Steps toward making toys more gender-inclusive also have the potential to minimize the pressure kids feel to take on gender roles that do not naturally come to them, says licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC. 

“Gender-inclusive toys have the potential to encourage self-esteem, self-acceptance, and confidence by minimizing symbols of what it means to be a boy or girl, or what the child should value based on their gender,” she explains. 

How to Use Toys to Start Conversations 

One way for parents to communicate messages about diversity and inclusion through toys is to minimize the messages that children receive about “girls' toys” and “boys' toys."

“Children often feel social pressure to play with certain toys and stay away from others," Guarino says. "But allowing and encouraging children to play with the toys they want to play with and giving them the freedom to explore toys without interference or direction can teach them about diversity and acceptance."

Amy Morin, LCSW

Parents might introduce questions and conversations about how certain toys or characters might feel in a given situation or talk about the pressures they may experience.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Parents can also use toys to talk about how different people might feel or how they may have different viewpoints. They also can act out different scenarios with their kids.

“Kids learn from pretend play so parents can step into that world and play make-believe,” says Morin.

If your kids incorporate different kinds of families or go against societal norms in their play, simply join in and support their efforts. With older kids, you can take it a bit further and expand on ideas or ask for their opinions.

“Parents might introduce questions and conversations about how certain toys or characters might feel in a given situation or talk about the pressures they may experience,” suggests Morin. 

What This Means For You

Creating a more diverse toy box for your kids might involve taking an inventory of its contents from time to time. Think about what messages those toys may give your child and what values you want to instill to help you determine which toys you could add to enrich their learning.  Encourage your child to get involved in building their own toy collection, too. Also, avoid trying to steer them toward a particular toy just because it is diverse—keep playtime spontaneous and fun. 


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