Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gender-Free Toys

December 29, 2011

Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free?

Berkeley, Calif.
NOW that the wrapping paper and the infernal clamshell packaging have been relegated to the curb and the paying off of holiday bills has begun, the toy industry is gearing up — for Christmas 2012. And its early offerings have ignited a new debate over nature, nurture, toys and sex.
Hamleys, which is London’s 251-year-old version of F.A.O. Schwarz, recently dismantled its pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections in favor of a gender-neutral store with red-and-white signage. Rather than floors dedicated to Barbie dolls and action figures, merchandise is now organized by types (Soft Toys) and interests (Outdoor).
That free-to-be gesture was offset by Lego, whose Friends collection, aimed at girls, will hit stores this month with the goal of becoming a holiday must-have by the fall. Set in fictive Heartlake City (and supported by a $40 million marketing campaign), the line features new, pastel-colored, blocks that allow a budding Kardashian, among other things, to build herself a cafe or a beauty salon. Its tasty-sounding “ladyfig” characters are also taller and curvier than the typical Legoland denizen.
So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings? Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt to stoke their interest in engineering?
Among the “10 characteristics for Lego” described in 1963 by a son of the founder was that it was “for girls and for boys,” as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. But the new Friends collection, Lego says, was based on months of anthropological research revealing that — gasp! — the sexes play differently.
While as toddlers they interact similarly with the company’s Duplo blocks, by preschool girls prefer playthings that are pretty, exude “harmony” and allow them to tell a story. They may enjoy building, but they favor role play. So it’s bye-bye Bionicles, hello princesses. In order to be gender-fair, today’s executives insist, they have to be gender-specific.
As any developmental psychologist will tell you, those observations are, to a degree, correct. Toy choice among young children is the Big Kahuna of sex differences, one of the largest across the life span. It transcends not only culture but species: in two separate studies of primates, in 2002 and 2008, researchers found that males gravitated toward stereotypically masculine toys (like cars and balls) while females went ape for dolls. Both sexes, incidentally, appreciated stuffed animals and books.
Human boys and girls not only tend to play differently from one another — with girls typically clustering in pairs or trios, chatting together more than boys and playing more cooperatively — but, when given a choice, usually prefer hanging with their own kind.
Score one for Lego, right? Not so fast. Preschoolers may be the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police, eager to enforce and embrace the most rigid views. Yet, according Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that’s also the age when their brains are most malleable, most open to influence on the abilities and roles that traditionally go with their sex.
Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry, learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000 3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both girls and boys with older sisters.
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.
Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences? What do girls learn about who they should be from Lego kits with beauty parlors or the flood of “girl friendly” science kits that run the gamut from “beauty spa lab” to “perfume factory”?
The rebellion against such gender apartheid may have begun. Consider the latest cute-kid video to go viral on YouTube: “Riley on Marketing” shows a little girl in front of a wall of pink packaging, asking, “Why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-color stuff?” It has been viewed more than 2.4 million times.
Perhaps, then, Hamleys is on to something, though it will doubtless meet with resistance — even rejection — from both its pint-size customers and multinational vendors. As for me, I’m trying to track down a poster of a 1981 ad for a Lego “universal” building set to give to my daughter. In it, a freckle-faced girl with copper-colored braids, baggy jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers proudly holds out a jumbly, multi-hued Lego creation. Beneath it, a tag line reads, “What it is is beautiful.”
Peggy Orenstein is the author, most recently, of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.”

Unstructured Play

After a lengthy, in-depth discussion I had on unstructured play, with friends, I think there were a few key points made that I would like to share.

1. Some children need to taught and or guided on How to Play
Not every child necessarily knows how to play creatively or imaginatively without help or guidance. Some parents need to actually sit down with their children and play legos with them and show them how to build bridges, buildings and towns before they actually go to do it on their own. A parent may also have to remove cushions from a sofa and make a fort so that the next time the child while mimic what they did or come up with their own creation (like my kid, who saw a slide instead of a fort.)

2. The less electronic distractions they are exposed to the more there imaginations can thrive.
Excessive use of TV, Computers, iphones, ipads, and video games, stunts the imaginations of our young children. These forms of entertainment are passive to the mind, and some offer a virtual reality. In these our kids are not playing outside with friends, or in backyards, or with their dolls, or with boxes, or with paints and play dough, electronic devices offer no outlet for the imagination to flourish.

3. As mom's sometimes we need to bite the bullet and just Play With Our Kids
As painful as that may be for some of us (I am speaking of myself), our kids want our attention, they want us to enter into their world if only for a little bit. And we need to be appreciative and respectful of their worlds' and of their creations and Be Children With Them as we once were: a time when everything was simple, fun, and hilarious. Our chores and responsibilities will always be there waiting for us no matter what we do unfortunately, but our children will only be children for such a short, precious amount of time.

4. These are the times that matter most.
Engaging them in unstructured play is the stuff that memories are made of. These young years are the times they will remember when they get older and play with their own children and recount stories of how "Mommy used to dress up as a fairy and sit in my princess tent with me even though she barely fit!" Everyday that goes by our kid's  imagination begins to dwindle by the vast amounts of information they receive at school, from the media, from friends etc. My own 4 year old daughter makes comments to me almost everyday on how, "That's not real mama, that's silly!" And I am saddened by how quickly she understands or realizes that certain things don't really exist or are not real.

As a child, after watching the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I used to go into my closet to see if I could enter into some other world...that's what I want for my own kids, I want there lives to be magical, and mysterious and full of adventure before they realize otherwise.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Letting Go

So the other day I was shopping at Michaels to work on a project for my 9month old when a came across a table that had gingerbread house kits on sale for 2.99! Great deal I thought! My daughter will love this. I brought it home and immediately Ameera was ecstatic and wanted to build it. The first night she and her father worked on actually constructing the frame of the house, which they worked on diligently and the second day she and I decorated it with icing and candy.

However, as I sat down with her, my natural perfectionist instinct was to try to make the house look like the picture perfect models displayed on the box. My first mistake was to ask her which house on the box she wanted to replicate. Instead I should have just let her use her imagination to create a home of her choice.We then began to ice the roof, she took one side and I the other, and of course I was so concerned with making my side of the roof look smooth and clean and to cover all the brown parts of the gingerbread with icing, while ameera's side had globs of icing on various spots, obviously less then perfect vision. I attempted to try to "fix" her side, (my second mistake) and ended up in a power struggle with my poor 4yr old trying to make the house look the way I thought it should look. What is wrong with me? I kept asking myself over and over desperately trying to just let her be and have fun and enjoy herself, which she was thankfully. But during the candy trimming I continued in my effort to strategically place the pieces of candy where I thought they looked best as did Ameera, and occasionally I would replace one of her candies or move one of her gumdrop bushes only to be reprimanded and scolded for doing so. "MAMA! Why are you moving that! I did that!" She would yell desperately trying to clue me in to the fact that this was meant to be HER Project, not mine. Why was it soooo hard for me to Let Go?

What was even more troubling to me is that I know it's not the first time that I have tried in a sense to take over and try to do things my way. And if I intend to be a successful homeschooler than this is definitely something I will have to work on. I'm not going to have a picture perfect house, things will break, get messy, and I will have to be okay with that. Things will not always go according to plan and I will have to be okay with that. Things will not always go my way or turn out the way I expect and I will have to be okay with that. I will not always be in control...and i will have to be okay with that, because if I'm not I will most certainly take the joy away from just letting my kids BE kids, and then what will I have accomplished?

I realized one very important lesson in parenting and teaching. I was invading my child's world. This was meant to be "her" creation and therefore this was her territory and I imposed my imaginatively limited adult mind on her limitless one. Overall the experience was enjoyable for both of us. But next time I need to learn to Just Let Go! Had I left her to to design and decorate the house as she saw fit It probably would have looked totally different. I now can only wonder and imagine what her vision of it would have looked like, instead I see only pieces of her and unfortunately most of my own.