Girl Toys and Girly Play

The new Goldie Blox ad has been making the rounds on my Facebook.  It features three little girls and a Rube Goldberg device built from tea sets and princess costumes, and it’s a genuinely delightful ad.  I showed it to Kiera, who loved the ad and was disappointed when I told her that in fact, Goldie Blox were not a Rube-Goldberg-device building kit.

For reasons that mystify me, Goldie Blox seem to be wildly popular among some of the same parents who despise the Lego Friends line.  And yet both toy makers did research.  The Goldie Blox founder will tell you in her video that girls read and boys build, therefore she integrated the two of them by writing a story about a builder to get the girls to use the toy.  Lego watched girls play and concluded that while boys tended to sit down and build the toy, start to finish, before playing with it, the girls wanted to build for a while, then play for a while, then build some more, so they made the “girl” Legos more modular. They also found that girls disliked the traditional minifigs and wanted more realistic figures, so they added some. Finally, they doused the product in pink and purple so they’d be shelved next to the Polly Pockets instead of off in the Lego aisle.  (There was a lot of grumbling about the fact that this implies that the rest of the Legos are “boy toys” as opposed to gender-neutral toys.  But, in fact, you’ll often see an entire aisle that’s devoted to Lego stuff; the Lego Friends line was a clever way to extend their placement, grabbing space in the Pink Aisle by the Polly Pockets and the Littlest Pet Shop stuff.)

I have to admit that I’m also bothered by the number of parents who will contemptuously put down princess play.  Unless you’re raising your daughter in a box, she’ll probably go through a “princess” phase between about age three and about age five.  For an awful lot of little girls, a “princess” is a girl who gets to have adventures while wearing fabulous clothes.  Disney Princess costumes tend to be cheap yet indestructible, which is why they are also ubiquitous.

Molly in a princess dress

Molly, age three, in a princess dress.

Molly, at three, liked to dress up in pretty dresses and sparkly shoes (the red ones they sell at Target every December) and she would regularly choose things with princesses on them. Ten years later, she does Lego Robotics at her school, she’s in a program at the U of M for gifted math students, she plays roller derby, and she acts like the color pink is kryptonite.

I do think that it matters what toys people buy for their daughters and what activities they encourage.  It matters.  Girls should have building toys, just as they should have toys and clothes that encourage physical activity and active play (IMO, a Nerf catapult is as much as STEM toy as a set of Goldie Blocks — more on that later), and there are a million and one ways in which girls get the message that math, science, engineering and technology are for boys, not for them.  And I’m going to come back with both some specific toy recommendations and some general ideas for what makes something a “STEM toy.”

But I think we need to start from a place where we believe that girly play is valid.  If we tell a little girl that she is DOING IT WRONG because she wants to pretend to be a princess — you know what, this is NOT how we get more girls in STEM careers.  There is no wrong way to play.  Okay, actually, I take that back.  Throwing blocks at your sibling is the wrong way to play.  But there’s nothing wrong with dressing up in costumes, and we do girls a disservice when we treat their preferred type of play as unacceptable because it is too girly.