The Princess and Her Toolbox

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.

Every parent's worst nightmare. Photo courtesy of Ian Muttoo's photostream on Flickr.

Every parent’s worst nightmare.
Photo courtesy of Ian Muttoo’s photostream on Flickr.

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.


No princesses here. The girls from the GoldieBox viral video.

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.


2 thoughts on “The Princess and Her Toolbox

  1. Totally agree. We need to expose kids to all kinds of things to play with and explore and let them carve their own path. Art, music, dolls, trucks, blocks, cooking, theater. Kids love to play. Period. They will play with any sort of toy and find a way to make it fun. A lot of times it doesn’t even need to be a toy! I hate the idea of boy toys vs girl toys. Gender specific toys and colors are not innate in children, they’re learned. It’s sad really. And the stigma is more for boys than girls, I think. Girl Power gives girls license to explore the world of toys for boys, and they are celebrated for it. James loves playing kitchen and has a lot of fun playing with dolls. He loves Disney princesses. And as his parent, it’s tough to overcome the fear that someone will think he is weird because he likes “girl stuff.” Luckily they make toy kitchens in neutral colors so he doesn’t have to have a pink one. But he likes pink, too. AND he loves cars, and blocks, and his workbench, and any other variety of “boy” toys. Society just needs to get over the need to assign a gender to a toy, and let the kids just be kids.

  2. I love the idea of helping your kids make the toys they are interested in! The man who writes the Sweet Juniper blog makes many of his kids’ toys and dress-up costumes, and they end up being the most magical things. (Here’s one post of many, for example: His leather-working skills are getting to be pretty strong.) Working together with your child to make something new sounds amazing for everyone involved.

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