Love the GoldieBlox Video, but Not the Toys

I once paid my daughter a dollar to not buy a princess backpack. And when she recently announced, "I don't need to know math, because I'm going to grow up to be a supermodel," my brain nearly melted out of my ears. I spent the next thirty minutes (or so) half-ranting, half-explaining to her how she has to fight against a culture that believes the most important thing about a girl is being pretty. So I'm totally down with the sentiment of this video.

But then I get to the end and see that the product being advertised, GoldieBlox, is apparently just a set of blocks "for girls." Which makes me wonder, do girls need blocks "for girls"? Why can't they just use blocks?

The company's website has an answer:

Our founder, Debbie, spent a year researching gender differences to develop a construction toy that went deeper than just "making it pink" to appeal to girls. She read countless articles on the female brain, cognitive development and children's play patterns...Her big "aha"? Girls have strong verbal skills. They love stories and characters. They aren't as interested in building for the sake of building; they want to know why. GoldieBlox stories replace the 1-2-3 instruction manual and provide narrative-based building, centered around a role model character who solves problems by building machines. Goldie's stories relate to girls' lives, have a sense of humor and make engineering fun.

I find this somewhat persuasive but also strange. The idea behind the video is that girls just need to be taught to see themselves as more than princesses, that they just need to overcome the culture's brainwashing to become the builders they were meant to be. And yet, the message above seems to be that girls are naturally more in tune with verbal skills than spacial skills. So apparently the only way to lure them into using a spacial toy is with verbal bait? I'm not buying it.

After a brief search for studies on gendered toy preference, I stumbled on Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, a professor at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, who has been conducting a toy study for the past few years, trying to determine which types of toys tend to elicit the most complex forms of play. And he made some interesting findings about toy preference among boys and girls.

What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls. Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example—elicited the highest quality play among girls.

He also says,

One trend that is emerging from our studies can serve as a guide to families as they choose toys: Basic is better. The highest-scoring toys so far have been quite simple: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs, and classic wooden construction toys. These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways.

The accompanying video for the study bears this out (study findings begin at 3:10).

One of the most basic toys they studied, a set of multicolored wooden blocks in the shape of stick figures called Rainbow People, turned out to be among the most successful in encouraging open-ended play. Children created trains of Rainbow People, made towers of Rainbow People, made up stories about rainbow people, and so on. Even the teachers admitted that they didn't expect these simple toys to be so popular. And indeed, the children weren't interested in them at first. But once they started exploring the toys, they played with them longer and more creatively than much flashier options.

The implication of the video is that both children and adults are often drawn to toys that don't actually foster the most creative play. Toy companies do a lot of research on kids, but their research is geared toward getting kids to want their toys, not necessarily getting kids to play extensively with those toys. Lego's sales went through the roof after they started making highly gendered building sets based on Star Wars, etc. But as any parent can tell you, building these Lego sets tends to follow a linear trajectory: follow the instructions until the X-wing fighter is complete, put on shelf. Not a lot of open-ended play there.

All of which goes to say that while I love the GoldieBlox video, I think the GoldieBlox toys are misguided, just as I think Lego's attempt to woo girls was misguided. You don't teach kids how to think and build creatively by giving them ready-made narratives to build around. And you don't encourage open-ended play by making your building toys highly gendered. The best building toys are the simplest. What we need to do is advocate for a new aisle in the toy section where boys and girls can each find creative toys to play with, side by side, and build things we've never seen out of their own imaginations.