Peggy Orenstein writes in the New York Times today about how various toy stores and toy manufacturers are navigating the minefield of gender and play. Parents of young children often marvel that, despite their own egalitarian intentions, their kids are the ones who police traditional gender norms. Indeed, as Orenstein notes, studies of primate and human toddlers found that while both sexes enjoy stuffed animals and books, boys prefer cars and balls, while girls are drawn to dolls. I myself have an embarrassing childhood memory of being distraught when given the gift of a remote-control airplane; my parents had to remind me to say thank you and then encourage me to play with it—and, of course, it turned out to be a lot of fun.
Orenstein points to research finding that children raised in households that practice and preach gender egalitarianism make better romantic partners as adults. But there are other reasons to encourage girls especially to play with stereotypically male toys. Research shows that boys get their first computers at younger ages than girls, and are more likely to become expert at video and computer games and to play with toys (like Legos) that develop spatial reasoning skills. This matters because all of these childhood activities are correlated with eventually pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM sector, which over the past decade has created three-times as many jobs as non-STEM fields. According to the Commerce Department, though women currently hold less than one-quarter of all STEM jobs in the economy, those who do work in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs.
Laura Reasoner-Jones is a Virginia elementary school computing teacher who enters teams of girls in FIRST LEGO League, in which children compete to construct and program robots. She says parents should actively encourage their daughters to get over the “ick” factor many girls associate with traditionally “boy” activities, such as interacting with machines and building things. “Girls should be encouraged to go out and take apart the lawn mower; take the grass off the blades and see how it works. Parents can start with that.”
Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”
Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.
“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”
When schools fail to spark children’s interest in science, math, and computing, the result is that populations that have historically been drawn to those fields—the sons of college-educated parents—continue to excel, while girls and low-income kids lag behind. The toys kids play with at home matter, and so do the lessons children learn at school; in order to overcome overwhelming cultural conditioning to the contrary, both parents and educators should actively send the message that all children will have fun and learn a lot when they “tinker” in the physical and electronic worlds.
cross-posted at The Nation