A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on Babble about the Lego Friends controversy called "Maybe We Should Let Girls Be Bakers and Ballerinas".
One commenter (who, for the record, does not have a problem with the Lego Friends line) wrote that the main problem with the princess phenomenon is that most of the toys involved don't help girls develop math and science skills.
The commenter goes by the name of Cloud and she is both a working scientist at a biotech company and the mother of two little girls. You can find her blogging at "The Wandering Scientist".
Cloud made an excellent point so I asked her if she would like to do a guest post highlighting "girly" toys that successfully teach these important skills.
Thankfully, she obliged because I am totally going to follow her suggestions.
Who wouldn't want a daughter who kicks ass in chemistry and calculus?
As a proponent of strong role models for young women and girls, I never thought I would welcome princess merchandise into my home. But I have two daughters, one almost five and one just a little over two, and they had different ideas. Although we fought the pink and purple princess tide for awhile and succeeded in slowing its entry into our lives, ultimately— we lost.
However, I came to realize that my problem wasn’t with the princesses themselves so much as the nature of the toys that travel with them.
In the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot (a neuroscientist and mother of three) argues convincingly that most, if not all, gender differences we observe in our children’s skills are not innate, but learned differences, that develop because we have trained boys and girls differently from a surprisingly early age.
How do we train our kids? By giving them toys and experiences, and by encouraging their interests. As we all know, interests can change frequently, particularly in little kids. But skills grow, and build upon earlier skills.
With that in mind, my husband and I keep a close eye on the skills the toys we own promote. We have dolls and tea sets- there is nothing wrong with promoting nurturing skills. But we also have toys that promote key skills for future math and science success: spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, matching, logic and building.
It is not that I’ll be disappointed if my daughters don’t grow up to be science and engineering geeks like their parents- but I want that decision to be based on their authentic preferences, not out-dated gender stereotypes reinforced by toy manufacturers. Plus, I want my girls to have the skills to pursue whatever ends up interesting them as they get older.
The most educational toys in the world do no good, though, if your child won’t play with them. So I have searched for toys that promote early math and science skills that also appeal to the most princess-loving little girls.
1. Building Toys
Building toys promote both spatial reasoning plus an "I can make things" attitude. LEGO is the heavy weight in the building toy arena. I’ve got no problems with the new “girl” Friends sets (there's even an Inventor's Workshop ), but LEGO also has castle sets as part of their traditional line that should appeal to the princess-obsessed. (Unfortunately, you’ll have to add your own princess).
If your child is not into building things, don’t despair. There are other ways to promote spatial reasoning. Remote control vehicles are great because they make you really think about direction. Unfortunately, most remote control cars are monster trucks and other aggresively “boy” themes. However, My Little Pony makes a remote control car with (bonus!) a radio controller that looks a bit like a magic wand.
Puzzles are another great spatial reasoning toy. Once your child graduates to true jigsaw puzzles, check out the Ravensburger line. In our experience, these increase difficulty at the right pace to hold interest while also stretching skills, and the pictures have enough distinctive regions to guide your child to completion. And yes, they have a princess puzzle AND a ballerina puzzle .
4. Pattern Making Sets
Jewelry making sets can be great for promoting pattern skills including recognition and matching. My 4.5 year old loves the set below by B. Pop-Arty Beads, and only needs my help popping the beads together about 25% of the time.
We also had a surprise hit with both our 2 year old and 4.5 year old with the Design and Drill Toolkit . It comes with a book of patterns to match, and has the added bonus of getting them comfortable with using tools.
Another great option is Alex Little Hands My Pretty Mosaic with which your child can create mosaics of, what else? A castle and a crown.
Dominoes promote logic skills and are a good strategy game for kids as young as three. And if your daughter must have princesses on her dominoes, Disney has obliged. Of course, traditional dominoes will help develop number skills, too. I believe they even come in PINK.