Monday, March 12, 2012

Lego, gender and free play

Lego for girls: The Butterfly Beauty Shop
I've a short piece on the Wheeler Centre's website today, 'Pink bricks, ponies and free play'.

Last week's debate on girl-branded Lego sparked some robust debate on Twitter and elsewhere. This was my original reply to Jo Case, the Centre's editor.  A sample:
[M]ore knee-jerk sex divisions are dodgy. They uphold traditional ideas about gender roles: girls talk and worry about beauty, while boys fight, die and save princesses. The problem is not necessarily the gender traits: as if one has more value than the other. The problem is that we grow up thinking that they’re ‘natural’; that our education, professional and domestic lives can be no other way. This is what so many toys do: they’re typically conservative, because they recognise and reinforce the easy market categories that already exist, such as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.
But this is not the end of the story. Together with the media, family life, schooling and employment, toys clearly help to shape our gender identities. But there is no evidence for a straightforward causal relationship between ‘X toy’ and ‘X personality’. Plenty of independent, smart, well-educated, strong women played with Barbie, My Little Pony or Cabbage Patch dolls – I’m married to one of them. She did not simply play out the Barbie fantasy: the dolls were taken from their Valley Girl fantasy-land and given new identities and plots. And regularly taken apart. 
Lego is perfect for this. Much of the magic with Lego happens, not with the off-the-shelf play – although it’s clearly good for concentration and motor skills – but with the later free play. All the bits go back into the bags and boxes, and are transformed into new characters, vehicles, buildings. My son’s space police starships and fire stations became a library, a museum, a house, a cafe, and a hundred other things with wheels, walls and sometimes guns. 
My hope is that the girl-branded Lego can be used in this way. With good encouragement from parents, girls need not be stuck with traditional feminine characters and scenes. If pink bricks or ponies are first step, they are not necessarily the end of the road. 
Parents can provide primary colour bricks alongside the pinks and purples. They can prompt children to remake their cafe or salon, rather than keeping them pristine on the shelf. 
If a family genuinely cares about gender equity, and provides a home life of robust respect and reflection, Lego play – regardless of its colour – will reflect this.

1 comment:

Elisabeth said...

Good stuff, Damon. I agree. I can imagine a rainbow coloured museum of lego bricks that defy the stereotypes wonderfully, or a space ship in pink and a doll's pram or ambulance in purple. Why not? Colours are free.