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New Toys Bend the Rules of Traditional Gender Roles

By Jenee' Osterheldt - Knight Ridder News Service

July 01, 2003

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Gina Cline remembers when she was a kid and wanted a Tyco racetrack for Christmas.

She got a Barbie dream house instead.

"That's a boy toy,' is what my mom said," said Cline, 31, who grew up to become the coordinator of education and training for the Builders' Association in North Kansas City, Mo.

Parents often get caught up in what girls and boys are supposed to play with, Cline said. She said she wishes toys were more unisex.

"There are more male chefs than women, but I bet their moms wouldn't buy them an Easy Bake oven."

Pink aisles packed with dolls consume the girls' section of toy stores. Girls are apparently supposed to love dress-up clothes, faux cosmetics, vanity sets, dolls and cooking toys. They're supposed to play house, pretend to be nurses and do hair.

So it's no surprise that few little girls say they want to be an architect, engineer or the president when they grow up.

Ellos, a new toy by Mattel, is one of the few building toys designed specifically for girls. Its sleek, artsy packaging, variety of shapes and warm colors allow girls to build houses, picture frames and even jewelry.

The motivation was to give girls a building type of toy that they would enjoy using creative, architectural design, said Michael Shore, a psychologist for Mattel.

When it comes to the field of technology, science kits and building toys, girls are often left out of the concept and marketing strategy.

While there have been attempts to introduce building toys for girls, overall there is a deficit, and that is detrimental, said "Dr. Toy," aka Stevanne Auerbach, author of Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How To Raise a Child With a High PQ (play quotient).

Parents and toy companies alike need to understand that construction activities are critical for girls, said Auerbach, who has a doctorate in child development and child psychology and has evaluated toys for 30 years.

"It is a very important experience that builds eye-hand coordination, logic that affects reading and math strategies," she said. "And the thinking skills involved helps them to work out decision-making processes needed for science."

Allowing children to play only with certain toys limits their perspective. Children need a balance of role models and exposure to a wide range of things, said Andrea Woodward, who is studying play therapy and is a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director at the Counseling Associates Network in Kansas City.

And female role models in the fields of technology, science, engineering and construction are scarce.

Project Discovery, a weeklong engineering summer camp for high school girls at the University of Kansas, was designed to change that.

"We want to encourage young girls to excel in science and math by exposing them to the engineering field," said Florence Boldridge, director of diversity programs at the university's school of engineering.

Out of the 1,500 undergraduate engineering students at KU, only 305 of them are women, Boldridge said. And the numbers are more scarce at the graduate level: of 700 students, only 100 are women.

Boldridge said she believes that toys play a factor in girls' interest in math and other sciences, but the images society promotes, as well as the exposure girls get to engineering, play a larger part.

A lot of times girls are good in science and math but don't want boys or their peers to know because they don't think it's cool, Boldridge said.

At Project Discovery, 40 girls are learning about engineering (chemical and electrical), aerospace and other fields. They get to participate in classes, team projects, field trips and a "ladies' night."

Perhaps more girls would get into mathematical- and science-based careers if they knew more about them, said Vickie Nickel, president of the local NAWIC chapter.

And it could all start in the toy aisle.

A few building toys approved by "Dr. Toy"


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