I’m sure you’ve seen the fabulous GoldieBlox video/ad and the surrounding unfabulous copyright controversy. The video is really cool, but the copyright stuff isn’t. And more relevant to me, the GoldieBlox toys in and of themselves have some issues.
I ordered them before they even came out, feeling very excited by the feminist buzz over the company. But the toy itself is not very open-ended, and it is very pinkish. So even though it pushed buttons for a different part of the brain than typical “girl toys,” I didn’t really get the empowerment part. It was still a fairly narrow view of girlhood, which also leaves us with a narrow view of boyhood. And that isn’t really empowering for anyone.
So as mom to two boys and two girls, I thought of toys we enjoy that “light up” different parts of the brain, that allow children to explore in fun and exciting ways, and that appeal to boys, girls, and even grownups:
1. Magna-Tiles: An endless hit. Used in our house weekly, and almost daily, by all kinds and ages of kids. I caught my six-year-old daughter trying to build a very wide building with Magna-Tile squares last week and exploring several different ways to support the roof. Her seven-year-old brother has been known to make Star Wars ships out of the triangles he tends to hoard. But thankfully, Magna-Tiles doesn’t market squares for girls and triangles for boys. They’re simply toys for kids. (Tip: the translucent ones are the coolest!)
2. CitiBlocs: Another building toy (there will be a few on this list, as we love building!). Citiblocs are very light, machine-cut inch-wide blocks that can be used to build all sorts of amazing structures. They really grow up with children. I love seeing how my six year old uses them vs. her 14-year-old brother. Citiblocs come in “cool” and “warm” colors, which is so freeing for my blue-loving daughter and my red-loving son (who loves to tell me that pink is a cool boy color).
3. littleBits: These electronic circuits are so cool. They are truly open-ended. While we’ve also enjoyed Snap Circuits for electronic play, Little Bits are designed to get kids thinking much more creatively and using a wide variety of found materials. The basic set isn’t cheap, but it offers a lot of flexibility in play, and the customer service was excellent. One of the wires snapped off as my six year old was making an electric toothbush last summer, and the company quickly replaced the piece. Their website is also a wonderful source of inspiration. These aren’t played with quite as often as some of the other toys, but when they are, the richness of creations is really amazing.
4. Spirograph: Remember those? Something soothing and calming and freeing about experimenting with all those circles, some colorful pens, and a piece of paper. Simple and appealing to all kinds of kids.
5. Legos: My 10-year-old daughter has the biggest collection of Harry Potter Legos in the house, and I am happy to see Lego doing more outreach to bring girls into the fold. I will readily admit that my six year old had zero interest in Legos (despite them being all over our house) before Lego Friends came along. She definitely loves that the pieces look like girls, and we were also very happy to see that they’re finally beginning to add boys to the Friends sets too. Her brother often adds the space shuttle and pirate ship to their play, and she is branching out and asking for a Lego City set from Santa. Better yet, she’s going off-kit and building all sorts of structures for her lego friends and little animals. I hope the Lego Friends sets eventually drop the pink and purple and have as many boys as girls, so that they appeal to a wider group of kids and support a broader range of play scripts.
6. Minecraft: This software and app-driven video game definitely appeals to boys and girls. The game requires all sorts of strategy, building, engineering, and cooperative thinking skills. Minecraft is so popular in our house that we had a (family) meeting to set up rules for peaceful play and to make sure we’re not playing too often. Don’t tell them, but I am secretly happy that this is their chosen video game obsession.
7. Rainbow Loom: If I had told you one year ago that your elementary school-aged sons would be obsessed with making bracelets for themselves and their friends, many of you wouldn’t have believed me. But it’s happened. And really, I think the fact that it happened shows the appeal of gender-neutral toys. The craze hit before the intense marketing push, which allowed kids (not advertisers) to decide who liked them. Great for fine-motor development, social thinking, and following (complex) directions.
8. Art sets: Sometimes having the tools of the craft all in one beautiful package becomes your inspiration. I’ve given a kit like this to each of my four children, and in every instance, witnessed a prolonged burst of art and creativity. Pastels, watercolors, and beautiful colored pencils provide a refreshing departure from markers. And the fact that it packs up into a portable wooden suitcase is a bonus at clean up time!
9. Spy gear: My kids are really into spies and spy gear. We refer to our Elves on Shelves as spies for Santa, and the first museum the girls picked on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. was the International Spy Museum. Spy play has a wide appeal for kids of both genders and many ages, and lots of adventure, physical activity and learning abound in the missions and secret messages. Plus, the gear is just plain cool. The edible paper has been a hit, the laser detector surrounds my 10-year-old daughter’s door, but the night vision goggles are definitely the favorite right now. Just search for spy gear to find the perfect espionage device for your budding informant.
10. Suspend: This game is really fun to play, challenging, and completely genderless! It was a hit with kids of many different ages at the beach this summer — challenging for adults, but playable for kids as young as five years old. Lots of suspense (excuse the pun), strategy, and laughs all around whenever this one is pulled out.
These toys work for my sons and my daughters and seem to work for a wide variety of ages as well. The truth is, holding narrow views of what boys and girls like and play with isn’t empowering to anyone. Try to ignore the marketing hype and find toys that let kids explore, create, and celebrate their childhoods, not just their gender.