Could a little girl's path to becoming a scientist begin with the toys under the Christmas tree?
There isn't any definitive study showing that giving a child certain toys will guarantee he or she will grow up to be a rocket scientist. But there is evidence suggesting that simple toys -- think Lego or Lincoln Logs -- are the best kinds of toys to stimulate a child's thinking skills and creativity.
“Construction toys have done well overall in our studies due to the fact that they don’t suggest any one use,” Eastern Connecticut State University researcher Jeffrey Trawick-Smith said in a statement last month. “They can be used in many different ways, so children tend to interact more and negotiate what they want to build.”
Trawick-Smith leads the Timpani Toy Study, an annual review that examines toys and scores them on how they encourage thinking and learning, imagination, and cooperation. This year, the toy earning top marks was Lego's Duplo bricks – a larger, more preschool-friendly version of the classic Lego set.
“Duplo bricks pose many problems for children to solve, so there’s a lot of deep thought that goes into building,” Trawick-Smith said.
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But when the average person thinks of "girl's toys," the odds are good that science-themed toys such as building blocks, chemistry sets, and magnets won't usually spring to mind. The gender gap in toys could be an important clue as to why fewer women end up in computer science, engineering, and mathematics.
“It's safe to say that, for the most part, the majority of those toys in the category of science and engineering are marketed toward boys,” said Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne researcher Judith E. Owen Blakemore.
Toy marketing appears to mirror engrained attitudes about gender and play. Blakemore has done work on how toys are perceived along gender lines. In one 2005 study, Blakemore and her colleague Renee E. Centers asked college students to rate toys as to whether they were suitable for boys, girls, or both.
“The toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically rated as neutral or moderately masculine,” Blakemore and Centers wrote in their paper.
Blakemore and Centers also found that toys people scored as feminine were mostly associated with appearance and attractiveness, as they had hypothesized.
One of the other interesting things they found, according to Blakemore, was that it was hard to pinpoint the features that distinguish a "moderately feminine" toy from a "strongly feminine" toy. In one instance, the defining characteristic of a kitchen toy rated as only moderately feminine seemed to be that it was decked out in primary colors, rather than in shades of pink.
In contrast, there was a clearer divide between "strongly masculine" toys, which tended to be fake weapons, military toys, and other things with violent themes, and "moderately masculine" toys, a category that enveloped things such as cars and trucks, construction sets, dinosaur toys, and some educational toys.
In the modern world, children may benefit from exposure to both moderately feminine and moderately masculine toys, according to Blakemore and Centers.
“Both boys’ and girls’ development could be enhanced by learning domestic skills, as well as by learning to build with construction toys,” the authors wrote.
In recent years, a host of new science-themed toys targeting girls has arisen from companies large and small. GoldieBlox, the brainchild of a Stanford University engineer named Debbie Sterling, combines a construction set, figurines, and storybooks. The initial set allows a kid to follow along with the heroine, Goldie, and use blocks, cranks, ribbon, and wheels to make a belt drive that can spin all of Goldie's animal friends around. Other sets contain elements to build a parade-float vehicle or a pulley elevator.
Sterling raised more than $285,000 to produce GoldieBlox via Kickstarter, well outstripping her initial goal of $150,000. The sets should be ready to roll in April of next year.
Also aimed at engaging girls is Roominate, another venture coming out of Stanford's engineering department (there must be something in the air in Palo Alto). The basic concept is that of a wired dollhouse: Girls can stack rooms, assemble furniture, and put together wires and motors to make lights, fans, or buzzers. Roominate, also funded in part through Kickstarter, will be headed to many homes this Christmas.
Roominate's founders created the toy specifically to encourage girls to get excited about technology, and to fill an unmet need in the toy market.
"When we looked around at girls' toys today, we did not see the kinds of toys that inspired us when we were young," Roominate founders Alice Brooks, Bettina Chen, and Jennifer Kessler wrote in the Huffington Post in June.
But toys that aim to bundle science in a girl-friendly package can also miss the mark and court derision. One set of kits targeting girls that made its debut last year included playsets such as the Spa Science Kit that seemed heavier on the spa and lighter on the science.
“The packaging here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work,” San Jose State University philosophy professor Janet D. Stemwedel wrote in a blog post for Scientific American in November of last year.
While there is interesting chemistry that underlies beauty products and cosmetics -- and cooking and other things associated with domestic tasks -- it doesn't seem like there are products that truly tackle the science behind traditionally "girly" things. Instead, Stemwedel wrote, the emphasis in some science kits for girls is more is on fitting science into the box of traditional gender roles.
“Consider as well that 'the right way to be a woman' has tended to be loaded up with expectations about having and raising children, making meals, and keeping a beautiful house -- duties that rather cut into one’s time in the lab or the field, if one wants to pursue a scientific career,” Stemwedel noted in another blog post.
Some people, including scientists, argue there are certain innate differences between males and females that predisposes us to certain toys. One 2008 study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior showed that male rhesus monkeys tended to strongly prefer playing with trucks over dolls. However, female rhesus monkeys were more variable in their preferences, playing with both kinds of toys, not just dolls.
Still, the question of where natural gender differences end and social pressure begins is far from settled.
Laura Nelson is a writer, speaker, and trained neuroscientist who successfully campaigned to get the London-based toy shop Hamleys to remove signs that directed shoppers to "girl" and "boy" sections of the store (although at least one shop uses pink signage to indicate the floor that has dollhouses and makeup sets, according to the New York Times). But her campaign isn't about forcing girls to give up dolls and play with trucks.
“It's more about, 'Let's get everyone every opportunity'” to find the toys they like, Nelson said in a Skype interview.
Removing the explicit labeling of toys as "for girls" or "for boys" might seem like a minor issue, but, for Nelson, it's an important exercise in weakening gender stereotypes. Regardless of how strong the natural differences between girls' and boys' brains are -- and Nelson thinks the scientific evidence for this is a bit scanty -- nurture will still likely play a role.
Stereotypes fit into the influence of nurture, and there are studies showing they can have an effect on the stereotyped. When women are told by experimenters that women are worse at math than are men, they tend to perform worse on math tests than women who aren't confronted with the stereotype. The same kind of effect has been found with racial stereotypes, as noted in a 1995 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“By telling someone they're less good at something, that feeds into their subconscious and plays out in reality,” Nelson said.
Giving your daughter a Lego set might not guarantee that she'll become a physicist, and the gender gap in science careers is obviously not wholly caused by stereotyping of toys. But eroding the perception that blocks and dinosaurs are the natural and exclusive domain of boys could be one small step in helping a science-inclined girl follow her bliss.