Every year at Christmas a few of my friends and I buy gifts for Toys for Tots in lieu of getting gifts for each other. Which means that once each year this single, happily childfree gal drives herself to a toy store, during the holiday season, and walks in. Deer in the headlights, right? Actually, no — I love going to toy stores. Why? Because, um, they’re toys. They’re fun. I remember all the things I used to love as a kid and, let’s be honest, would still happily play with if they were plunked in front of me and I had a few hours to kill.
What’s interesting to me, and what inspired this post, is what I am drawn to when I’m shopping for my Tots gifts, and what it means, if anything, about engineering, gender, culture, genetics, etc. When I walk into a toy store, it always seems to me that there are two stores. There are the “blue and pink” aisles, which I tend to avoid, and did so even when I was a kid, and then there are the aisles for “building, creating, puzzling, thinking and moving.” That’s where I end up. I love blocks, legos, and building sets of all kinds. I like markers, art supplies, chalk, clay. I like puzzles, brain teasers and logic games. I like books. I like balls, jump ropes, kites — things that are physically challenging and build coordination. Even better? Toys that combine several of these together.
I’ve never been into dolls. There was a brief stint in fourth grade when I was into baby dolls a little. It didn’t last. I hated Barbies. I just didn’t understand what you were supposed to do with them. All those little clothes that were impossible to put on. Why? I truly apologize if you are a well-meaning family member who got me a Barbie as a kid. I’m admitting now that I didn’t play with it. I had a doll house at one point. I mostly rearranged the furniture and designed the interior, which was kind of fun. When my friends wanted to play “house” I always chose to be the dog. Unlike the “mom” or the “baby”, the “dog” could do pretty much whatever she wanted.
I liked to do art projects. I liked to build and design things. I liked to write. When I was old enough, I learned to do projects in my dad’s wood shop. I went through a phase of building gigantic paper mache animals. I read voraciously. I did puzzles. I was shy and terrible at team sports, but I loved gymnastics and physical activities that I could do alone to challenge myself.
I think reading the above paragraph, it’s obvious how I ended up in art school, and then in engineering school. From a young age I did things that you’d expect a kid to do who would grow up to be an artist or an engineer. My parents didn’t push me in those directions. In fact, they’d tell you I was a very headstrong kid. It was not easy to get me to do things that didn’t interest me.
With this in mind, I step into the toy store each year to buy my Tots gifts. I buy things for “building, creating, puzzling, thinking and moving.” Because in retrospect, I think these are things that build critical thinking skills, creativity and good physical health. But I picked those toys as a kid because I liked them, not because I thought they’d be good for me.
Judging from what I see watching kids out and about in the world, most little girls like dolls, princesses and pink from a shockingly young age. Relatively few run toward blocks, toy workbenches and K’Nex sets. Judging from my own childhood, this isn’t because their parents are shoehorning them into a female gender role. It’s because they prefer dolls and princesses.
The new Goldieblox toy has gotten a lot of press this year (see viral video here). It’s a toy for little girls, designed by an engineer, that is intended to inspire girls to build, invent and problem-solve. I support this effort one hundred percent — I shared the viral video on Facebook and if I had a daughter I’d gladly buy her a Goldieblox set. But what if making a building set that is pink and purple and marketing it to girls doesn’t make them suddenly “realize” that they love building sets and want to be engineers? What if little girls aren’t avoiding building sets because they’re the wrong color, but because they’re building sets? Girls that want to build will find the building sets even if they’re packaged in blue and red — I did.
I usually start blog posts with an overall theme and just dive in, never sure how the post will turn out until I finish. In this case, I’m frustrated with where I’ve landed. Basically I’ve concluded that kids will play with the toys that interest them, and most girls choose to play with dolls and dress like princesses. This is surely wrong. This must be wrong. There’s nothing wrong with girls playing with dolls and dressing like princesses, but I’m certain that lots of those girls are also awesome at math and good at building things. Toys like Goldieblox will hopefully lure them in with the pink and help them discover aptitudes their other toys don’t encourage.
What else can we do? There are so many ways to build and create. If you know a little girl who loves dolls, teach her how to sew her own doll clothes. Sure, it’s a traditionally female activity, but sewing is extremely challenging and teaches logical thinking, spatial relations and construction skills. Don’t buy her a dollhouse. Help her build one herself. If she wants a tiara, help her make one. Maybe she won’t want to be an engineer or scientist or architect at age six. But if you teach her how to build and create, when she realizes she wants to be an engineer at age sixteen, she’ll have the tools to succeed. And succeed she will.