Can games and toys get girls interested in STEM?

This morning I was watching my daughter push a pink dump truck around the living room, and it got me thinking about what games and toys do to shape gender stereotypes. There’s evidence that children gravitate toward sex-stereotyped toys as young as 18 months, which is just my daughter’s age; unfortunately, there’s also evidence that parents are still pressuring or at least expecting young kids, especially girls, to play this way, sometimes through nonverbal cues.

Clearly, this is a problem both for our education system and our society. There’s a persistent gender gap in high-demand science, technology, engineering and math fields. Children play as a way of discovering their passions and aspirations; they’re also intensively practicing skills like motor control (cars) and empathy (dolls). By the time they get to school, a skills gap may have already opened up, along with many years of ingrained belief about what’s appropriate for little boys and little girls. The tyranny of princess culture for little girls has been the subject of entire books.

This week Toys R’ Us announced that they’d start to carry Goldieblox, a book and toy series designed by a young Stanford graduate to help girls get interested in engineering and funded via a successful grassroots campaign on Kickstarter last year.  Goldieblox is a series of storybooks paired with construction sets. Girls read the book and then have a chance to build a simple machine like the one in the story. A future version of Goldieblox may be an ebook paired with a coding project. Similarly, Lego has debuted a line of building toys tailored to school-age girls called Lego Friends, also linked to a set of characters through stories and online games. The company announced in February that a Lego Friends set was their bestselling set of the year in 2012, and that the product line overall doubled sales expectations.

The interesting thing about both of these toy lines is that they’re still pretty gendered in a traditional way. As this 2005 study highlighted, high-quality educational and developmental toys are usually those perceived as gender-neutral or mildly masculine–building blocks, art supplies, balls, kites, musical instruments, nature kits, bicycles. Conversely, most highly gendered toys–guns and makeup kits, say–are “less supportive of optimal development.”

These new toy sets, on the other hand, assume narrative, characters, and pretty blondes are requisite for attracting girls to building or engineering. It may be a successful approach. I recall listening to a presentation by a brilliant young female web developer  who said her gateway drug to learning HTML was Neopets, a massive multiplayer online world of customizable, cute and cuddly animals.

But why can’t companies design and market gender-neutral toys that promote a wide range of skills? Presumably, boys need just as much encouragement to focus on empathy, narrative and social skills as girls do to explore engineering. (Why did GI Joe blow up the bridge? How do the bad guys feel about him blowing up the bridge?)

For that reason, I’m actually a bigger fan of Lego’s StoryStarter series. This follow-on to the highly successful Mindstorms robotics blocks, aligned to the Common Core, has children working in teams to make up a story, “storyboard it” in 3 dimensions using the Lego sets, and then going online to document and share their stories.