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Building on Her Own Terms: From Lego Foe to Lego Friends

Used with permission from www.fbtb.net

In 2012, after four years of research, Lego launched their Friends line. The line was marketed to girls five and older and featured kits that encouraged not only construction but storyline based play. The line was very controversial and there were numerous petitions asking Lego to stop pandering to gender stereotypes. Protesters felt that Lego was going back on its years of gender neutral claims by making girls feel like the only toys that they could play with should be pink and involve pampering.

Never missing the opportunity to rant over gender stereotypes in toys, I was one of those protesters. The petitions were all over my Facebook feed.  They showed beauty shops adorned with pink bricks, and said that the line simplified construction for the girls. Well, if I read it on Facebook it had to be true, so I eagerly signed and shared every petition. If my daughter was to become interested in building, I was certain that she would be perfectly content building a firetruck or a dragon castle. The Friends line had me in a tizzy.

Well, as we all know glass houses shatter easily and within good time mine was going to shatter into hundreds of pastel Lego bricks.

When the Lego Friends line was launched, our family was knee deep in a love affair with all things Lego. Our son had always loved playing with Duplo blocks as a toddler and has since spent countless hours building with Lego bricks. We even used his Lego play as his first introduction to math. There were no preschool or kindergarten math worksheets or workbooks. Just Lego bricks.

Kids that spend time involved in complex block and Lego play in their preschool and kindergarten years develop high levels of spatial perception and have a much easier transition to advanced math topics in their teen years. Spatial skills are the ability to visualize and manipulate two and three dimensional objects, and are essential for reading a map and merging into traffic. They are also the foundation for success in fields such as math, engineering, science, architecture, and even meteorology.

I had seen how our son benefited from Lego play and I wanted our daughter to gain the same skill set through play. There was only one issue, she did not have any interest in Lego bricks.

As a toddler, her favorite Duplo activity was to suck on them, and as she continued to grow, her use for Lego bricks didn’t progress much past eating or throwing them. She seemed downright bored by all things Lego. After a while, the thought crept in my head that maybe girls really don’t like building. Could all of my Facebook rants about gender stereotypes in toys be wrong? The thought of deleting all those posts was overwhelming, so I settled on assuming our daughter just had different interests from her brother.

Not because she is a different gender, but because she is a different person.

While I accepted that my daughter didn’t seem interested, I must admit that I hoped that one day she would enjoy building with Lego bricks. I wanted to see the excitement on her face after she created a structure that first appeared in her mind. Kids that sit down and build learn how to turn an idea in their head into a tangible object. They figure out how things around them work and gain the confidence in executing and completing difficult projects. I wanted her to have the confidence that she could engineer, build, and execute a project just as well as her brother or any other boy.

Apparently our daughter wasn’t the only preschool girl overlooking Lego play as the go-to entertainment. In 2011, 91% of Lego products were sold for use by boys. Were girls building at all? Were they missing out on the opportunity to learn all that such play offers? It’s no secret that in our country males are cited as having better spatial skills than women, and gender differences in spatial and pattern recognition skills appear as early as four years old (1). It is becoming clear that nurture, and not nature, has a lot to do with these differences.

Girls with older brothers are much more likely to be exposed to, and have interest in, building toys such as blocks and Lego bricks. These girls also have higher spatial and math skills than other girls. While this gender gap begins early on and extends through adolescence and adulthood, it can be reversed. Israeli researches demonstrated that the gender gap in spatial skills among first graders could be closed by getting the girls to engage in activities, such as building, just once a week.

All this research is fascinating, but how could we get girls interested in building?

Companies are trying to figure this out and new start up companies such as Goldiblox are developing toys whose main goal is to get girls to build and engineer. We bought Goldiblox a few months back, and while our kids enjoyed playing with it, it didn’t seem to spark an interest to build in our daughter. Unbeknownst to me, that missing spark was about to burst into a flame.

Two weeks ago our daughter yelled that she needed help. I went upstairs and found her on the floor building her brother’s Lego Dino HQ Defense kit. She had the directions out and needed help finding a piece. I tried to contain my excitement as I sat down with her. We sorted, we counted, we added, and we discussed details of the directions. She was incredibly capable, confident, and animated in her building. I was so happy that she was enjoying building and I was shaking my head and saying a rhetorical “I told you so” to Lego.

The next day she asked for her own Lego bricks. We told her that there were already approximately 5,000 bricks for us to step on each day and that we certainly didn’t need anymore. She said that wanted her own kit to build. She was so excited that we relented despite knowing that our feet would never forgive us.

I sat her on my lap and went to the official Lego website. She dismissed every Lego City kit that I pointed to. She had her eyes set on a kit that I was pretending not to see. I showed her at least ten different sets and her response was always the same. She told me that she “would” build those but she really wanted to build and play with the other kit. She wanted Olivia’s Tree House, the number one selling kit from the Friends line. Rolling my eyes and sighing loudly I clicked on the kit. Then I heard myself saying, “This set is really cool.”  Yes, the Friends line has a beauty shop. However, it also has a vet clinic, a horse farm, and kits that include cars and airplanes. I could fight and resist, but the reality was the our daughter did not want to build a police car. She wanted to build a tree house and a beach buggy with purple seats.  I swallowed my pride and added two Friends kits to our cart.

The next few days were long. All our daughter thought about was the arrival of her kits. When the FedEx truck arrived she literally jumped up and down holding her purple Lego boxes. Her brother was jumping with her and they ran to their room and began to build. She loved every aspect of the kits and they built one construction after another. I watched and quietly swallowed my pride. These kits made my daughter incredibly happy and for that I am grateful.

It has been nonstop building here ever since. Our daughter wakes each day and is excited to build. There is a lot of complex storyline-based play with the kits, and a new kit has been added to the mix. Her mini-figs have found their way out of the horse shows and into dragon castles. However, they always go home. She prides herself in setting up her “Lego Village” each night based on whatever storyline she created during the day. She is enamored by the animals in each set and has even used random bricks to build them a mini-barn. She is happy and incredibly proud.

In the end, despite the protests of myself and others, Lego Friends has become one of the biggest selling lines in Lego history and Lego sales to girls has tripled since 2011. Apparently, either parents feel more comfortable buying their daughters the Friends line, or girls want to build with the Friends line. I’m not sure which scenario is true for each family, and in the end does it matter? The most important thing is that girls are now building. They are gaining confidence, developing spatial and math skills, figuring out how things work, and having fun. There are aspects of the line that I do not agree with. I think that the animated characters on the web page are too old and sexualized for the target audience and our daughter is a bit confused why all of her boxes and instructions are purple. Maybe this line could have been sold with boy and girl mini-figs, since boys like my son and his friends love her kits too.

I will let Lego know my feelings on these points, right when I finish sweeping up my glass house.

 

  1. Levine, Susan, et al. “Early Sex Differences in Spatial Skill.” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 35. No.4 (1999), 940-949.

 

32 Comments
  1. Christopher Bohn

    Last night we saw a TV commercial for Lego Friends, and I only half-paid attention to it until one line pricked my ears. As the “characters” recited what they liked about school, one enthused: “I love science!” (followed by another who liked art and another who preferred lunch). I remember well the Math-is-Hard Barbie, and this was a nice contrast (especially since it was done matter-of-factly rather than sounding artificial).

  2. Sandy Westermann

    Great article! As the mom of a little tribe here I can honestly say that the girls had NO interest in duplos or legos. I haven’t exactly encouraged it either. In fact, I freecycled what we had because I was tired of having to pick them up. One of the girls, the one with a bend toward science and engineering, does build with kinnex, contraptions, and actually every other bit of material she can get her hands on including the recycling, pvc pipe, rubber bands, etc. Another child has gone a more practical route and is my husband’s little helper at work (he’s a plumber). At 10 she could install a faucet by herself. I suppose if a child’s bend is to build then the child will build whether it be from colored plastic bricks or another material.

  3. Cristen Pantano

    Thank you for your comment Christopher. I haven’t seen that commercial, but it sounds great. And yes, Math-is-Hard-Barbie, that was an interesting one. Can’t ever forget her. May she rest in peace…

  4. Rachel Minton

    I enjoyed reading your blog :) I detest gender stereo types, as I have four boys who play with dolls and yes Lego friends:)

  5. Great post, Pants! I really liked your line about her being a different PERSON, not gender than Ben. I think it’s great that “girly” inspired toys can be an entry into building, if that is what get them there, and of course we can’t ever know if it’s nature or nurture that leads to kids picking the toys they do (of course it’s always a mix of both!). Obviously marketing to girls is in many ways out of control: over-sexualized and ingratiating toys, shirts that specifically enforce stereotypes of girls as “divas”, “spoiled” or bad at math. But also I think it’s important to realize that not all things associated with femininity are bad, they have just been labeled as such by a patriarchal culture. Is it any less helpful for someone to use their imagination, think up social situations with characters thus improving their empathy and social skills? Aren’t these things just as important in life as building and spatial skills? The problem is being social, empathetic and nurturing are all things often associated with being feminine, which is often assoc. with weakness. But these things keep humanity going! We need as many great parents, speakers, writers, conflict resolvers, psychologists, teachers, as we do engineers and architects, and all genders should be encouraged in all these directions. Anyway, great post, I look forward to more soon!!

  6. Cristen Pantano

    Thank you Rachel. Yes, gender stereotypes hurt boys as well.

    Thank you Amy. Great points in your comment.

  7. Teresa

    I was right there with you on this one! I was all irate about how they made girl legos and then bought them for my daughter – in my case it was because it came with a little story and she totally loves following along with the story and kind of acting it out. I agree with you too that they shouldn’t make it all pink/purple and if they had boys too it would just be a great gender neutral toy.

  8. Nathan

    I’ve read many post along the line of this since the Friends line appeared. My daughter was already into Lego when it came out, and she leapt at the chance of getting new bricks in exciting colours. She loves building them and creating all sorts of stories around them. Then she’ll go back a build a crazy robot or a house that looks like it came straight out of a Dr Suess book.

    I dislike gender stereotyping as much as the next guy, but I hate parents trying to force their ideas onto their children even more – the kids need to make up their own minds and learn it for themselves or there’s no point.

  9. Sharp-O

    Great article! I admit I was reticent to get these for my little sister when I first saw the line but as I saw more and more set diverge from typical girl areas, I found that these are perfect for girls because they’re not just about pampering and pool parties. It’s a line with robot laboratories and magic shows and a god damn Cobra Kai dojo! It’s a great line for girls in my opinion.

  10. Cristen Pantano

    Sharp-O, I’m glad you liked the article. Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, the kits are pretty cool. We have a birthday party and I bought Olivia’s Tree House as the gift.

  11. Polywen

    Loved your article. It is a rare thing for one to admit when they were wrong, even rarer when they had formed such a strong opinion. This always felt to me like when people would protest a movie before they actually saw it. They are more upset of what their own assumptions are, rather than the truth. What I don’t understand is that why there isn’t a similar protested for Megablok’s Barbie line, which is actually guilty of doing what the Friends line was erroneously accused of doing?

    In any case, love the Friends line. And my two boys love the line too.

  12. Model Gal

    Great post and I’m glad that you realized what an asset the LEGO Friends line is. I’ve been a LEGO fan for over 30 years. And it wasn’t my brothers that got me into it — I got them into it since I’m the oldest. I’m not a girly girl, and I don’t only build in pink in purple, which is why I’ve stayed a LEGO fan well into becoming an adult. I wasn’t all that into the mini dolls that LEGO friends offers, but at the same time I bought a large amount of the LEGO friends line (multiples of all the sets) precisely because of the colors and accessories. Many people who were complaining about with the Friends line never took into account that Friends was an addition, not a substitution for “regular” LEGO. I’m all for new parts and colors — any colors. I like the new Legends of Chima theme for the same reason — new parts and colors. I’m not a big fan of those animal minifigs either, but I still like all the bright orange and olive green parts that come in the sets. LEGO isn’t about one particular theme. The whole point is for ALL the bricks from all the themes to be mixed together to create something new.

  13. Rusty Patti

    I couldn’t stand the Friends line when it came out, but the pre-school girls in the house really wanted them. Olivia’s Tree House and inventor’s lab seemed the least objectionable so I bought them. After about a month they started asking for the traditional sets, too. I consider the Friends line to be the gateway drug into LEGO building and someday a career in engineering.

  14. Nick Martin

    Love your article, and I think that whole line about “As a toddler, her favorite Duplo activity was to suck on them” describes my daughter perfectly. This is the kind of thing I worry about, raising a girl (who turns one in less than a week) in a house that’s quite packed with LEGO stuff.

    She doesn’t have an older brother to get her hooked… she only has her dad who’s been collecting for many years (and is, in fact, a writer for FBTB, the source of the comic above). I already have a stash of sets put away for her, and yes, there are a few Friends stuff in there (and many more loose Friends sets… they have some great parts; I’m especially partial to the water slide).

    More than that, I worry about the role that gender-biased toys bring into her life… I could do without the Disney Princess line ever coming into the house. At the same time, I want her to actually enjoy her childhood, so that means if she wants the Princess line, I’d probably get them for her (and then keep saying “you can be way cooler than any of these Princesses”). And if she wants the Friend’s line as she gets older, she’ll probably get that too, or maybe Star Wars or City or who knows what else.

  15. buriedbybricks

    This line has changed a lot of minds it seems, which is a good thing in this case. The night these sets arrived in my town my wife went right out to get a couple of the smaller sets. The fashion designer for her and the lab for me, since then we’ve built a good portion of the sets with our son who is also a fan. He actually prefers the Friends project cases because his favourite colours are pink and purple.

  16. murphquake

    What a stange place for an AFOL to see all these familiar names (Adult Fan Of LEGO ;-) I don’t have any kids of my own, but my best friend has a daughter who is 7. Although her personal LEGO collection is all Friends sets (a lot from me, although several made her xmas list too) when she comes to my place with her mother she will build and play with anything she can get her hands on. In fact, since last year we noticed that if mom and “uncle bill” are taking a long time or talking in another room we don’t hear a peep except the quiet click of bricks snapping in place, and it’s a lot longer before we get asked about time. I think a often missed benefit of Lego play is that it develops a sense of patience. There’s a huge difference in opening a package and having a toy ready to go and having a package where if you don’t put it together you don’t get to play with it. When putting the toy together is fun in itself it’s a winning combination.

  17. Excellent piece.
    Male mini-dolls have been there from the beginning with Peter In 3315 Olivia’s House, and two new ones this summer, one in the school and one in the dolphin cruiser.
    Love Friends!

  18. Christa

    Now I’m glad that my little girl has loved to build with Duplo since she was little – her papa has been sitting down to create weird zoos and robots and even monsters and cars for ages. She hasn’t seen the new sets yet, but the big reason I don’t care for them is that they have special, more girlie figures. Why not lady mini-figs?

  19. MsRowdyRedhead

    I was a bit offput when I first heard about the friends line, but I quickly got over it when I saw the parts the line brought to the table. This is a great article, and I hope it brings other moms into the fold.

  20. Lisa Woods

    My 8 year old son loves Friends Lego. Of course he keeps it in a shoe box so that he won’t be ridiculed by his school friends when they come over for play dates.

  21. You know I really commend you for having the courage to write this post. Being willing to let go of our own pre-conceived ideas as parents when necessary is often painful and sharing it more so. But as we do so we’re more willing to hear our kids voices over our own when necessary! I think Friends Lego is about to head into our house too… but I’m a fan of purple so no biggie… though I think big brother’s star wars lego figures might be coming over for tea on a regular basis! ;)

  22. Excellent article and well timed! I too was a HUGE Lego Friends protester. I played with the same legoes my brother played with so why wasn’t that enough for my children’s generation as well? The truth is though that I didn’t really play with the legoes that my brother had. I am sure that I dabbled here and there but they definitely weren’t “my thing”. I wonder if a treehouse or a horse barn would have been more engaging? We took a trip to the Lego Store after Christmas last year which was a first for us. Our then 5 year old son was very drawn to the Lego Friends area due to the imaginative nature of the kits. Unfortunately for us the women shopping there with her daughter was telling her how she could only choose from those kits as the rest of the store was for the boys. Andy looked at me with such innocence and said ” why can the boys choose from the whole store but the girls can only look here?” It had never occured to him that this section was geared towards a different gender. I really believe that it is up to us as parents to allow our children to cross these “lines” created by companies and to teach our children to follow what they are interested in. I can see that it exactly what you did here….you let your glass house shatter for the benefit of your child and for that I congratulate you. Although that is not alwas easy for us as parents it benefits our children greatly! This article has definitely had made me think about encouraging lego play with my daughter who currently has no interest in them…….and I am now open to shattering my glass house to do so. Great article ,Cristen!

  23. Cristen Pantano

    Thank you all for reading this article and your insightful comments.

    We just finished the construction of Olivia’s Tree House. There has been a lot of starting and stopping, and going to other kits along the way. The final steps were intricate and both kids LOVED building it. I did too! It’s a great set and they love the details.

    I have learned a lot through this and while my kids are young, they are there own people. I can only guide, not control them.

    Nick, I am sure your daughter will build! Just keep exposing her and follow her lead on what interests her. Our daughter is 4.5 and we have managed to escape the Disney Princess phenom, but she does have dress up stuff that she loves. Including, to my initial horror, plastic purple heels. Balance…

    Glenn, thank you for the tip on the boy mini-figs with the Friends sets! Our son loves these sets and I definitely will get them the dolphin set to share.

    Murphquake, excellent point about the patience that building provides. I never thought of that, but so true!

    Thank you all again for reading!
    And very honored to have AFOLs here!

  24. I was dismissive of Friends, too — my 8 year old daughter loves LEGO Harry Potter and some of the City sets (she did most of the Police Station herself). She also begged for the Friends so we got her (actually, I think we suggested it to a relative) the Tree House set and she loved it — built it all herself. (She got one of the smaller kits too and I helped her a bit with that one.)

  25. Michael

    My thoughts exactly “The most important thing is that girls are now building.” I do not love the mini-dolls, wish they were a bit more compatible with traditional mini-figures, I do like the new color pallet, but I’ve always tried to look at friends as a gateway to LEGO, much like I do to some of the other themes I don’t like as much, if they get kids building good things will come of it.

  26. I am glad Lego is inviting girls into their world, I just wish there weren’t such a partition to imply that girls should only select from those sets when boys get “the rest of legos”. I’d like more female minifigs and non combat themes added to the rest of the line.

    I am inspired to be part of the change I want to see as well. I started a new toy company called Build & Imagine, and have a kickstarter campaign running for my building sets designed for (but not limited to) girls. I’d love to know what you think:
    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lauriep/build-and-imagine-with-constructible-play-sets-for

  27. I have a 4 1/2 year old son who just graduated from Duplo to Lego, and he has a younger sister, who I hope one day, like their parents, will play with Lego. Whilst I love the idea of having some “girly” Lego’s, I don’t like the idea of having the different minifigures, that do not go with the rest of the Lego characters. Back when I was getting “too old” to play with Legos, Lego came out with Paradisa, which was “girl themed”, but had the same minifigures as the regular Lego’s. Why not try that again, now that Lego is bigger? Maybe I’m just the odd girl out, and other girls prefer “girly” characters? But at least there is something out there for my 2 1/2 year old once she gets a bit older.

  28. Luludi

    Thank you! Your post has relieved my conscience a bit, I confess: I have this Duplo Cinderella Castle hidden in the attic for Christmas….and I also have signed some petition in the past against Lego for girls. I really wanted my children to like and play with Lego and I have bought a couple of “neutral” sets, a train and many bricks for them. Before last Christmas, when she was 3, I was able to subtly convince her that the Duplo train was the best thing we could ask Santa for (I’m not proud for being manipulative, but I really thought that would be fantastic for her and her little brother, and it was. They play a lot with it). Now she’s 4 and not so easy to lead, and she likes everything pink and sparkling, and her eyes light up when she sees anything princess-like. No doubt she’ll ask for something like that for Christmas, so I thought that with the Castle she would be happy, and have something to build for my consolation! Who would want to see a disappointed little face at Chistmas? Moreover, although she plays with her Duplo now, she has never been a patient child and neither has she got great manual skills (her 2 1/2 brother seems more skilled than her), so she easily gets nervous and annoyed and gives up if her constructions fall. So I thought that having a great target for her like the princess castle will encourage her to try harder. Now, after reading your post and all the comments, I think I have known better Lego Friends which I haven’t still seen because my kids are too small, and I willingly agree that building in pink and purple is better than no building at all. Thank you all!

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