Lego is at it again: trying to make Lego appeal to girls. The introduction of “Lego Friends” should be good news right? With evidence that Lego is a gateway to science and engineering, and that playing with Lego improves spatial, mathematical, and fine motor skills, surely this will help with the gender imbalance in STEM? Yet my first reaction was a cringe.
Let me begin with a little history. My love affair with Lego began when I was 7. That was the year I moved to Germany, the largest European market for Lego. The Economist reports that in Germany last year, building sets account for 13.4% of all toy sales, compared to 9.7% for dolls. Contrast that to Spain, where dolls account for 16.8% of toy sales. Is it a coincidence that Germany is strong in engineering? I think toys are a harbinger of mainstream culture.
Back in 1992, Lego had an amazing series aimed at girls, called Paradisa. I had the pimpin’ pool house, complete with a convertible and my own pool boy, and Dolphin Point, a lighthouse with an ice cream parlor. But the best part about these sets was that they gave me the building blocks to design and build my own houses, because what mansion doesn’t need a spiral staircase and huge glass windows? These were pieces you can’t get from the castle and spaceship sets. Just seeing pictures of these sets makes me want to fly home, find the giant box of Legos in my parents’ basement, and play again.
So when Lego discontinued Paradisa, I was devastated. What was even more distressing was that Lego then introduced another series for girls, called Belville. I was immediately turned off by the large awkward figurines, which wouldn’t fit into my houses, and lack of reusable Lego building blocks. Belville was heavy on accessories and light on building material (aka real Lego). I didn’t want to groom plastic horses, I wanted to build cool stuff!
Little did I know, Belville wouldn’t be the worst offence. I was outraged 10 years later, well past my prime Lego playing years, at the introduction of Clikits. I remember thinking WTF, this isn’t even LEGO! Clikits are dinky little plastic flowers and bits to stick on to purses and picture frames. How lame can this get?
So now you understand why I meet the news of Lego’s latest foray with trepidation.
It’s hard to miss that Lego has focused its marketing exclusively on boys for the past decade. There are ever grander sets of castles, spaceships, and robots, all in the “boy’s aisle”. Even the more unisex Lego City sets tilt towards police and fire station paraphernalia, which is okay, but they don’t come with any girl heads! I liked Paradisa because they always had girl heads with stylish ponytails, not the ugly bright red flip hair in regular sets. But it is with the introduction of more and more specialized pieces and movie franchise tie-ins, I feel like the special magic of making your own creation is being drained out of Lego.
Nonetheless, I am somewhat encouraged by the fact that Lego has refocused itself on its core product, and has spent years doing research with home visits and observing kids at play, to design its new product. While the colors and preference for veterinary clinics are reinforcing gender stereotypes, and I’m not wild about the new figurines (apparently the only thing you can change is the hair, vs the traditional figurines which were totally interchangeable), I think it’s important that girls are at least playing with Lego. On this point, I agree with Lise Eliot, neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a survey of scientific papers on gender differences in children. As she puts it: “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains”.
The book Influence cites a study where it took just a 23 minute video of an anti-social child appropriately integrating into a group of other children shown to antisocial preschoolers, for these kids to become socially integrated, and even becoming social leaders in some cases. So I think perhaps it will be the $40 million marketing budget that Lego is putting up to launch Lego Friends that will do the trick. Hopefully once girls see ads of other girls like them happily playing with Lego, they will stop thinking it’s a toy “just for boys” or tomboys. Because Lego at its heart is truly one of the most gender-neutral toys ever.
Even now as a childless adult, I can’t walk past a Lego store without going in to take a peek, and so it was with great delight when I discovered the Lego Creator Beach House last year. Despite the ages 8 -12 label and a $45 price tag (for a bunch of plastic, but it has skylights that open!), I brought it home with great enthusiasm and immediately set to work building the different versions. Of course that was just the pre-requisite to what I was really after, building my custom dream house.
I hope Lego will go back to its roots and provide more building blocks like the Creator series that let the children’s (and adults!) creativity shape the play. Because it is this act of building, creating and unstructured play that forges the creativity, problem solving and other skills that will make great engineers down the road. It’s not about following a blueprint, it’s about creating your own. I want my future kids to have the same experience playing with Lego as I did.