While her friends dressed Barbie dolls, Lucy Sanders designed and constructed buildings with Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and playing cards. She learned physics by playing with her Slinky, and chemistry, through her chemistry set. Sanders says that the board games she played with her family taught her strategy, empathy, and how to win and lose. Her parents did get her a Barbie—but she and her sister turned her into “gladiator Barbie”, “medieval Barbie”, and “superwoman Barbie”.

Sanders became a researcher and earned the title of Bell Labs Fellow, the highest technical accomplishment bestowed by the legendary research lab. She now heads up the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), which focuses on increasing women’s participation in technology. Sanders says that children’s toys greatly influence how they see themselves and what they become.

Sensors, 3D simulations, and apps are the Lincoln Logs, Slinkys, and Tinkertoys of tomorrow. I saw at first hand the difference that playing with such technology can make, at two hackathons that were hosted by Level Playing Field Institute in September and October.

Black and Hispanic girls as well as boys were bubbling with enthusiasm after learning how to build apps for the India-made tablets that they had been given. These children were from ethnic groups that are usually excluded from the tech sector. Yet they left with the ambition of becoming part of Silicon Valley’s innovation economy. Rebecca Taylor, an African-American 14-year-old, was determined to publish the app she had started building. She said that this motivated her to continue learning to code “not just to create games, but for things that can really help people”.

Finding toys that appeal to girls and that inspire them to study science and technology isn’t easy, however, as Andrea Guendelman learned when shopping for her five-year-old daughter. She wanted a chess set that her daughter would like. She found nothing. Then she looked for a girls’ science kit and found nothing. When she talked to other mothers, they expressed the same frustration—that the toys and apps that inspire children to learn science and mathematics are geared toward boys rather than toward girls.

Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association, acknowledges the problem. He points to research that highlights the importance of play in children’s development and agrees that we need better toys for girls. But toy companies can’t be in the business of “social engineering”, he says. “They just want to make and sell creative toys that provide joy and fun for children. The companies are often more influenced by the interests of children, than they are influencers of children. The toy business is ‘magic’ in the sense that toy companies often do not know whether the toys they make will appeal to children, although they try very hard to discover what will be appealing… both to boys and girls”.

He shared three stories of the “mysterious market environment that toy companies are constantly trying to decipher”:

• Behavioral scientists at the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported some years ago on an experiment in which boys were placed in a room with nothing but Barbie dolls. The boys bent the dolls at the waist and played with them as toy guns.

• LEGO would love to sell its entire line of construction toys to both boys and girls, but sales to girls of their traditional lines have lagged. It took seven tries for the company to uncover a design that appeals to girls, and they seem to finally have gotten it right, but is it because girls have a newfound interest in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] orientation of construction toys, or for other reasons?

• Years ago, for lack of sales of its products to girls, Lionel Trains produced a pink train set in an attempt to market their product to girls. It failed miserably. Marketing STEM-related toys to girls is not easy.

The Toy Industry Association is enthusiastically supporting an initiative by Guendelman, her friend, Carrie Van Heyst, and NCWIT to create a toy competition called PowerPlay Toy & Game Challenge. The goal is to encourage the development of toys that are educational and that girls actually want to play with.

I’m hopeful that we will one day see chess sets, robot constructors, and holographic simulators in the pink-colored aisles of toy stores. In the meantime, parents should do what Lucy Sanders’s parents did: inspire their children to go beyond stereotypes and to build houses for their superwoman Barbies.

You may also want to read: The toys that inspired female engineers and scientists

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(C) Vivek Wadhwa