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