STEM toys — toys that promote the learning and cognitive development that support scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical thinking and learning — STEM toys are all around us.
When Molly was a preschooler, we taught her the alphabet and we counted stuff for her, just like you’re supposed to, but I was largely oblivious to the many activities I did purely for entertainment purposes that were providing her with cognitive building blocks. Rhymes, for instance. There’s a Raffi song that goes:
Down by the bay / Where the watermelons go /
Back to my home / I dare not go / For if I do / My mother will say:
Did you ever [see a bear] / [Coming his hair] / Down by the bay?
(Replace the bracketed bits with whatever rhyme you like. Did you ever see a swan, mowing the lawn? Did you ever see a moose, drinking some juice? Etc.) I made up my own verses and encouraged the girls to do the same. It turns out that rhymes are an important foundation to reading; that if you understand that “look” and “book” share a sound, that makes it a lot easier to grasp phonemes and start piecing words together.
Just as I tended to think of “letters and reading” as pre-literacy school readiness activities while overlooking the importance of rhymes, I tended to think of “counting and numbers” as pre-math school readiness activities while overlooking patterns, pattern finding, sorting, measuring, and playing with quantities and volume. And I tended to think of “fun experiments with things you can find around the house” as being science learning activities while overlooking throwing, catching, jumping, sliding, and basically all active play.
I am sure there are parenting books out there that talk about this; I didn’t read them or they made no particular impression on me. I just embraced the idea that Play Is Good and took my kids outside a lot because hopefully the novelty of the playground would keep them entertained and out of my hair and I could think my own thoughts for five minutes or possibly even ten.
But here is where I think a lot of little girls are denied some of the really critical early learning activities that boys get as a matter of course: they don’t get to play outside as much, and the grownups around them discourage them from getting dirty.
I have always been a big fan of playgrounds. A few years ago, the girls were playing on the playground after school pickup and Kiera asked me, “Why are there always so many more boys who stay after school to play than there are girls?” I told her that I was pretty sure that this was due to the socialization of mothers. If you are a mother with a little boy, when he becomes mobile your friends with boys will instruct you to get him outside for daily exercise like he’s a golden retriever lest he destroy the house. I have seen mothers of boys give this advice, and I have seen mothers of boys get this advice. Mothers of girls tend not to get this advice even if their daughters are having behavior problems. If a boy’s having trouble in school, one of the first questions you’ll get from your friends and possibly also his teacher is, “How much exercise is he getting?” If it’s a girl, they’ll ask, “Are there problems at home? Is she being teased?”
And since my personal anecdata suggests that under-exercised girls are less likely to destroy the furniture than under-exercised boys (or puppies), there are fewer negative consequences to the parents for not getting girls to the playground. And I think this has consequences. Climbing on the monkey bars is a physics learning activity. A slide is a physics learning activity. Throwing a ball. Shooting a Nerf gun. Filling a bucket with sand to make a sand castle or a “cake” (my kids were obsessed with making birthday cakes, covering them with “candles,” i.e. small twigs, and having me come over to the table to blow them out. Over and over.)
Building a fort out of fallen branches is an engineering activity. Building a dam at the beach or in a pond (that requires careful supervision, obviously, as children should never be left alone around water.) Building a snow man. Building a snow fort.
(All this stuff is also good exercise, which has numerous other benefits to kids.)
Not only are girls taken outside less often, they’re often discouraged from getting dirty once they’re out there, especially if they’re wearing girly clothes that could be “ruined.” There’s an overall attitude that jeans and overalls are for active play and play where you might get dirty, whereas dresses are for sitting around looking decorative. This is an artificial line drawn by grownups; it has to be explicitly taught to little girls, who are, in general, totally willing to dive into the sandbox in fancy dresses.
For a little girl who wants to wear dresses all the time, she might absorb that she’s supposed to sit around looking decorative, or she might absorb the idea that she has to choose between pretty dresses and adventures, between femininity and activity. My parents have a hilarious story about me, at the age of six, asking if I could wear a new dress to school. My mother said I could so long as I wasn’t going to roll in the mud. According to her, my face fell, and I said, “Okay. I won’t wear it, then.”
I’m not saying that every outfit needs to be a “roll around in the mud” outfit but I will say that a Cinderella dress from Halloween should be treated as something that would be enhanced, not ruined, by some streaks of dirt. Disney Princess dresses are inexpensive and sturdy. But even with real clothes, anything you buy for a four-year-old will be outgrown within months anyway. Unless it’s heirloom-quality or sentimental or there’s a sibling you really want to be able to wear it, Christmas dresses might as well be worn to the playground because it’s a sunk cost, anyway.
Despite thinking of myself as a feminist parent, I realized when Molly was around seven that I was getting a lot more irritated by her perennial attraction to filth than I would have been if she’d been a boy. I had thoroughly absorbed the idea that boys are little pigs who will wallow in the mud given half a chance, but no one ever said this about girls. You know what? There are kids of BOTH genders who have sensory issues that will keep them out of the mud (or the finger paint) but that doesn’t mean that an average seven-year-old girl will not happily get into the mud if she’s not going to get yelled at for it. And bath tubs, thank goodness, are equal-opportunity facilities.
Girls are also often expected to keep their toys nice, even cheap, disposable toys like Barbies. There’s no reason that Barbie can’t be played with in sand or in a swimming pool. I realized early that one of the advantages of Barbie is that she is cheap and easily replaceable, and let Molly take those dolls anywhere. (It turns out they’re also nearly indestructible! I mean, you can pull Barbie’s head off, but you can also pop it right back on.)
Anyway. My point here is that a lot of this actually comes down to how parents are socialized. It comes down to how the people around us teach us how to parent. We need to recognize that changing how girls are socialized starts at a much more fundamental level than which toys we bring home from the store.
(Let me note for the record that I am advocating here for giving girls the regular opportunity to run around and get dirty. I am NOT suggesting that these opportunities be denied to boys in the name of equality. Educational trends have taken recess away from a whole lot of kids, and advocates for boys will point out that girls can tolerate this sort of BS better than boys can. This is true, but not because it is a trend that is GOOD for girls. ALL kids deserve recess, regardless of their gender. ALL kids deserve to play. ALL kids deserve to get dirty if they like getting dirty. It is good for their minds. And good for their future STEM skills.)