GENDERED PLAYTIME IS NOT JUST FUN AND GAMES
Updated: May 9, 2019
Do you remember your favourite toys as a child? What about play time? I loved making up stories, playing with my soft toys, and reading. As a young girl growing up in the nineties, I didn’t have much interest in things like construction toys or video games. Which, it turns out, would have been great for developing cognitive skills like spatial reasoning – it's no wonder visualisations in my undergrad mechanics course were always a bit of a struggle!
Skills like spatial reasoning are important in STEM – in fact, they have been correlated with entry, performance, and persistence in STEM. Chemists and biologists need to understand the 3D structure of molecules and DNA respectively, and engineers need to understand the design, manufacture, and possible failure mechanisms of 3D structures – all of which require spatial reasoning skills.
These skills are developed in video-gaming, participation in sports, playing music, and playing with construction based toys. Given that gender differences in any skill (especially when it comes to STEM) is often believed to be due to ‘biology’, I found this study investigating the environments that shape spatial skills development in undergraduate geosciences illuminating.
Initially, the study found a gender difference in spatial skill between women and men. However, after controlling for factors like experience playing video games, gender, and test scores, the study found that participants who played with construction-based toys as children had better spatial skills.
Unsurprisingly, the study also found that men were more likely than women to have played with construction-based toys than women as children. So, rather than the skill difference being attributed to gender, the researchers propose the gender difference is actually due to the greater informal skill development boys and young men receive as a result of socialization compared to girls and young women (playing with trucks and Lego rather than dolls and reading).
This raises an important question: are we raising girls and young women, so they develop STEM-critical skills like spatial reasoning? Or, instead, are we unwittingly raising them in a way that limits this skill development, and in turn, their experience and performance in STEM?
The impact of gender stereotypical play on her spatial reasoning skills – and the associated negative impact on her performance and sense of belonging in her Stanford undergraduate engineering was what drove Debbie Sterling to found Goldie Blox, as shared in her TEDxPSU talk. Goldie Blox was originally a construction toy aimed at girls that combined storytelling and engineering in a fun and interactive way, and has since evolved to provide videos, apps, books, and animations. Debbie was determined to engage young girls in play that helps to develop spatial skills and was clearly filling a gap in the market given that 90% of Lego consumers were boys in 2008.
To address the gender imbalance in their consumers, Lego launched Lego Friends to reach the ‘girl market’. The launch was financially successful, however the range was criticized for perpetuating limiting gender stereotypes: the setting, Heartlake City was predominantly pink / purple, the figurines are taller, slimmer and curvier than standard Lego figurines with legs that could not move independently and wrists that could not twist. Game activities included shopping, beautification, and going to a café – themselves, harmless activities, but problematic and limiting when they are often the only activities shown to girls (rather than exploring or problem solving). Many have asked why Lego needs a ‘boy’ line and a ‘girl’ line – can they not just design a toy that can be used by all children? What does this segregated, binary view of gender and play say to our children who are gender queer / fluid / non-binary? Perhaps it is time for more inclusive and accessible toys for all genders.
At the end of the day, our children should be free to like what they like. And yes, that can be princesses and tutus for girls, and trucks and dinosaurs for boys. But we owe it to them to provide play and opportunities that do not unfairly restrict their skill development or belief in their abilities based on outdated and damaging gender stereotypes.