There appeared to be as many girls as boys running from booth to booth at the event, but LEGO failed to do its part in appealing to girls. No one could answer my question of why there were fewer girl minifigs and I was instead directed to LEGO's "Friends" line of only girl figures featuring jungle, beach, ranch, and juice sets. (Who knew LEGO girls like to juice?) These were not at all shaped like your typical LEGO minifig and would look ridiculous in a regular LEGO playset. Why can't LEGO boys and girls coexist? My one takeaway was that our beloved LEGOs (and perhaps a majority of toys) are doing a poor job of welcoming girls to play with toys that encourage hands-on play and inspire creativity. This is the type of play that can get a child excited about building something with their hands, creating something that has never been made before, and even learning by trial and error – themes that are common among all engineering disciplines. By excluding and not engaging girls, LEGO is discouraging girls who might be interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Why does play matter? The National Academy of Sciences states, “Spatial thinking is at the heart of many great discoveries in science; it underpins many of the activities of the modern work-force, and it pervades the everyday activities of modern life.” One study on 3D spatial abilities suggests that well-developed spatial skills are important for instilling confidence in those entering STEM careers and recommends that spatial-visualization training (i.e., building with blocks and taking things apart) is most effective before middle school. Confidence is key when entering a competitive field such as STEM.
As a kid, I aspired to be many things but when I entered college, I ended up choosing bioengineering, a field in which I could make a positive impact on global health but also one in which the more tedious tasks were more like play. Many of my peers who have continued on to research-oriented fields find this same fascination in their work and use this to get through long days in lab and getting through major setbacks like having a week-long experiment completely fail. I was fortunate to have been gifted toys like K’nex, LEGO sets, Capsela, and Smithsonian Science kits as a kid. I spent hours putting gears, wheels, propellers, and motors in place to make battery-powered machines and marveled at how they propelled themselves on land and in water. I learned about circuits and how crystals form and imagined the endless possibilities of technology in medicine. I also loved interactive computer and video games but most of them were packaged in ways that didn’t appeal to my girlfriends. If I hadn’t been exposed to these toys at an early age, would I have been attracted more to the sparkly, pink-filled aisles in the toy store that didn’t offer as many construction and science kits? Most likely.
Along with the essentials of creating a friendlier environment for mothers (i.e., parental leave, flexible hours) and establishing better mentorship networks for women in STEM, it wouldn’t hurt to start making changes at a young age and ensuring that the same creative outlets exist for both genders during their most formative years. This can start by improving the way the toy industry markets its products and will take off if parents are more informed about ways to encourage productive playtime and are positive STEM advocates.
What's your take? What can LEGO and other toymakers do differently?
Images from Brickfest were taken by Jessica Bermudez. The LEGO minifigure images are from lego.com.
Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the
sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Sorby, Sheryl A. "Educational research in developing 3‐D spatial skills for engineering students." International Journal of Science Education 31.3 (2009): 459-480.