An engineer friend of mine recently extolled to me the virtues of Legos for teaching math and engineering concepts to children.
As he talked, I thought back to my experiences with Legos, which had been somewhat limited and mostly involved building square house shapes and furnishing them with benches and tables. I realized that even as a girl raised in a fairly feminist, evolved family, my first real experience with a schematic really didn’t come until I was a teenager when for a while I built and painted model airplanes.
My daughter, who’s seven, has lots of Legos. They’re in enormous bins that live under beds or in closets, and mostly get dumped out in a sea of pointy plastic. They stay on the floor like a huge spreading oil spill with as much collateral damage, like when I inevitably step on one in an entirely different room of the house, yell and then wind up cleaning up all the Legos myself.
My daughter inherited all these Legos from my son, who was big into Legos when he was little. We got him endless sets, and he’d build the stuff or build half of it or something else entirely and then, you know. Dump the Legos on the floor.
I realized I personally had never bought my daughter a Lego set.
So we were at Target. We were buying a present for her friend’s birthday and as usual joking about the “pink aisle” and the “blue aisle,” and I said “you better not go in that blue aisle, you know, those toys are only for boys.” And at seven she totally gets the joke and she walked down the aisle with a scornful face and said “Yeah, I’m a girl, I’d never want to play with any of these yucky blue toys. Bleah. Like that car. Or that castle. Or that… OMG mom ALIENS this is so cool, look, look, look!!!”
And there was a display case with lego aliens and spaceships and even alien hats you could put on the Lego peoples’ heads so you could tell they had been assimilated. Lili was enchanted. “Mom, mom, look at the experimentation pod at the back of the spaceship!”
I looked at her, I looked at the flying saucer kit, which was twenty bucks, and looked back at her again. “You want it?”
The next day, we sat in her room and carefully sorted all the piles of colors out, like the instructions say. She started randomly grabbing pieces and said “this is too hard,” and I said “no it’s not, look at the instructions. Just do one number at a time. Which one’s first?”
“One,” she said, in that “derp, obviously” tone. Then looked at the pieces needed for the step, snatched them up out of the right colored pile, and put them together. “Done, mom,” she said.
“Okay, now do two.”
Eventually I wandered off and I didn’t hear from her for a while. At least until she was on step twelve and couldn’t figure out which end of a peg thing another dealie-bobber should go on. A visual logic thing, and when I showed her, she smacked her head. “Oh, of course,” she said, and went off again. It took her a couple of hours to build a flying saucer, with that being the extent of my help. She played space invasion, and her brother showed up and sat down and started playing with her, and they built a landing pad and part of some structures for the aliens to destroy and L wouldn’t let him do the talking because apparently he doesn’t do alien voices right.
She learned. So. Much. She accomplished something really interesting, and fairly difficult (I know because I’ve helped out with a number of those things myself). She played aliens with her twelve year old brother, and built things with him, and they so very, very rarely play together anymore.
So this is what we missed, in the pink aisle.
This set has 130 pieces, the majority of which are the doll’s “accessories.” The construction of the car is limited to simple, large pieces, most of which make up large parts of the car so that it is clearly easier to put together and less assembly – and thought – is required. This toy is supposed to be for 7-12 year olds, the same age group Lili’s spaceship is.
Also, this isn’t a Lego block person of indeterminate gender. It’s a girl. With big hair. With eyelashes.
Meanwhile, the UFO Invasion Tripod set has 166 pieces, all devoted to the construction of a complex, interesting and fun toy. There are a few traditional Lego figures, and, you know, alien head hats to convert them to aliens.
No accessories. No breasts.
I want you to go to Target. I want you to go to the Lego aisles and just go look at the toys, for a minute. And think about it. Think about young women who don’t go into science and engineering, even now, who struggle with math for reasons that have nothing to do with their innate intelligence, potential, ability.
I want you to think about how many female engineers you know.
And I want you to get pissed.