You may have heard that LEGO has introduced a new line for girls. The series features girl-like figurines, slim, long-haired and big-eyed, in venues such as a beauty shop and cupcake cafe. It has been met with decidedly mixed reactions.
Many parents are angered at what they view as a step away from gender equality. One protest petition has gathered close to 50,000 signatures as of this writing. (That petition is sponsored by Change.org, which was the focus of a Post article this week for its success with online petitions.)
It comes a few weeks after the writer Peggy Orenstein, best known for her book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” (Harper, 2011) questioned the worth of the new line in an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Should the World of Toys be Gender-Free?”
In response to the criticism, LEGO officials released a statement noting that all its toys are for girls, though the new line comes in response to customer demand for a version for girls that has “a more realistic figure, role play opportunities and a story line that they would find interesting.”
Amid the hoopla, I turned to experts at the National Building Museum, which continues to host the popular LEGO exhibit and also works to introduce children to building crafts and architecture. I asked Mary Hendrickse, the school and youth groups manager, and Joanne Seelig, the family programs manager, for their thoughts on building toys for specific genders.
Here are excerpts of our conversation:
Does gender matter when kids learn about building and engineering?
Hendrickse: In my experience, I don’t think gender matters when kids are learning about building and engineering… In my opinion, the differences we see between individual children have more to do with influences from their environments (parents, media, schools, etc.) than any differences in physical or mental development of boys vs. girls.
Seelig: As part of my position I oversee the toy purchasing for the toys in [the children’s play] space…I try to buy toys that are gender neutral and also have a variety of toys that may be stereotypical to girls vs. boys, but I have found that both the boys and girls will play with all of the toys.
Are gender-specialized tools and toys helpful? Why or why not?
Hendrickse: In my personal life, I don’t like it when toys are gender specific; I think that limits the potential for both boys and girls.
Up until this holiday season, my daughter has only had LEGO Duplo, which is mostly gender neutral. For Christmas, she had asked for “little” LEGO. It was actually pretty hard for my family to find LEGO kits that would appeal to her. Other than the couple of very basic starter sets, the regular size LEGO is gender specific with very “boy” oriented LEGO lines (“Star Wars,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” etc.) So rather than the addition of more gender specific LEGO lines (geared to girls), I would appreciate more gender neutral LEGO lines that my daughter would also be interested in.
As an educator, what I appreciate the most about the basic LEGO bricks is that you can create anything with them. With some of these new kits, some of that creativeness is lost: you follow the instructions rather than create something from your imagination. Without the fancy extra pieces, you’re forced to think creatively and critically about how to construct a tower, a house, or a word, out of those plain rectangular pieces. The possibilities are endless: you can try something out and if it doesn’t work, pull it apart and try it again. That’s what I want my daughter to learn when she’s playing with LEGO.
Seelig: Traditionally in the fields of engineering, science and math, boys have been encouraged and therefore gravitated more toward these fields. There is still a push for more women to join the fields of engineering and architecture. The more girls are encouraged at a young age to pursue engineering and architecture, the further these fields will develop.
Both boys and girls need support in developing their skills at school, at home and in their after-school learning environments (camps, museums, after school activities, etc).
What do you think of the new LEGO line? What do you think of “genderizing” toys, especially traditional gender-neutral toys?