Toy Kitchens Not Just a Gift for Girls

Posted November 6, 2007 2:41 p.m. EST
Updated November 14, 2007 1:52 a.m. EST

William Batson knows firsthand that when friends visit, they're likely to gather in the kitchen. The 6-year-old regularly invites guests into his play kitchen to prepare pretend meals, wash dishes or stow food in the refrigerator.

"The stove talks," says William, who lives in Phoenix.

Mary Batson bought her son a kitchen set before he could walk. She thought it was a great toy, although her husband, Alan, had doubts.

"He rolled his eyes," she says. "I said, 'What are you thinking? Look at all the male chefs.'"

These days both Batsons are fine with William spending time in the play kitchen. Alan, who enjoys cooking, came around quickly after he saw how much fun his son had with the toy.

The idea of boys playing in kitchens seems more palatable to parents today than in earlier generations, probably because of how they were raised and how they run their households, says Dr. Michael Kaplan, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut

"Men are reshaping and rethinking their roles," he says. "They are doing much more (cooking and housework) than they ever have."

Young fathers also are more likely than their fathers to have been reared by a working mother, Kaplan says.

And television has contributed to making men more comfortable in the kitchen.

"Some of these roles have been helped by the Food Network," says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. The network "has defeminized the kitchen" with programs such as "Iron Chef," "Emeril Live" and "The Restaurant," he says. Many young children - boys and girls alike - also enjoy watching the enthusiastic Rachael Ray.

Toy manufacturers say they try to offer plenty of gender-neutral options. Pottery Barn Kids, which introduced pink and blue sets several years ago, is adding a white line this holiday season.

Tom Prichard, vice president of Little Tikes, the Hudson, Ohio-based toy manufacturer, says the company doesn't track how many of its kitchens are bought for boys or girls, but employees regularly receive letters from parents who write that their sons love them.

"It allows them to emulate what their parents do," he said.

Jason Washelesky figures his efforts in the kitchen have spurred his sons' interest in cooking. The suburban Milwaukee father of two regularly prepares dinner because his wife, Dawn, works second shift. The children - 3-year-old Eli and 18-month-old Jack - love pretend cooking so much, the Washeleskys are giving them a kitchen set for Christmas.

Washelesky, 30, says he's not concerned that some people might associate the toy more with girls than boys.

"It doesn't even cross my mind," he says.

The boys also love dressing up as superheroes and playing with trains and trucks. "We let them have a little taste of everything," Dawn Washelesky adds. "Whatever they lean toward is fine with us."

Joseph Pillera of Northville, Michigan, has a similar philosophy about kids and toys.

"You present them with a lot of different options and see what sticks," the 43-year-old says. His 6-year-old son, Joey, plays with his sister's toy kitchen and enjoys watching "Top Chef," a reality cooking show on Bravo.

"We don't have a problem with that," Pillera says. "We encourage it."

Batson encourages William to use his imagination. The youngster loves to wear hats and capes and pretend he's a pirate, magician or cowboy. "Creative play is hugely important in their development," Batson says.

When children are discouraged from playing with certain toys, it can lead to self-esteem problems, Kaplan says.

"It makes them doubt themselves," he says.

He encourages parents to allow boys and girls to role play and wear dress-up clothes.

"The way children view these things is way different than the way (adults) do," he says.