November 28, 2013

How to Raise a Female Engineer. (Pink Toys not Necessary.)

I have three daughters.

A 15 year-old who sprung forth from my very own loins, and is an engineering geek who attends a STEM high school and seven and three-year-olds—bonus add-on features who arrived with my husband.

They also came with two awesome moms, one of whom has been my auto-mechanic since long before I met the man who helped make their babies, and eventually became my husband. All of which is to say that I care, deeply, about raising girls. And my life is filled with women who build, geek and engineer the world around them.

I’ll admit that when GoldiBlox first came around, I shrugged.

My living room was, at the time, filled with some sort of whirring thing that my daughter and her father had created. I don’t know what it did, but it took up a lot of space, made cool sounds, moved stuff around and entertained them for hours. I think it involved cars and a track, and there was a loop-de-loop thingie-bob.

Prior to this feat of transportation robotics, our house had been filled with all manner of things that click, bang, connect, construct, conduct and do things. None of them were pink.

When I saw GoldiBlox for the first time, my first thought was, “why is it pink?” So that we can tell the difference between girl engineering and boy engineering?

(More about GoldiBlox.)


Because really, there has never been any shortage of engineering toys for girls to build with. I know this, because I used them 15 years ago. The fact that boys also used them didn’t disqualify them from being used by my daughter.

And I do wonder if making pink engineering toys makes a lick of sense at all. I mean, were we going to raise “girl engineers” who were comfortable doing “girl engineering” in “girl engineering environments” only to find out that the real world doesn’t work that way?

So now she is 15, and rocking as an engineering student. People ask me how I raised a girl to be an engineer. Part of it is really easy, I didn’t. She came out of me this way.

I just didn’t shut anything down for her.

It was clear from the get-go that she had no interest in dolls. She would sometimes ask for one, but it was always obvious that she was only doing it because she thought she was supposed to. That American Girl doll we got her? She gave it to her cousin a few months later. Those insipid Polly Pockets? They were used alternately as passengers and leveling devices in her roller coasters that she engineered with her dad.

We did things with her—that’s how we raised an engineer.

We explored things with her and explained things to her.

We built things with her and let her take things apart. (That Mac Book pro that died a sizzling death when a soda was poured on it became the first laptop she ever took apart.) She helped with every “assemble at home” thing we ever bought, from bookshelves to gas grills.

When I picked our little girls up the other day, the three-year-old was on her mommy’s shoulders, looking under the body of a car, learning how the exhaust system fit together. (Needless to say, the under body of the car was not pink.)

We don’t need special pink engineering toys for girls.

We need to expose them to anything that they are curious about in the world. We need to not partition the world off into “girl things” and “boy things.”

For that matter, if a boy wants to play with pink things—even pink engineering things—let him. If a boy wants to bake cupcakes and design clothes, let him.

The activities in life are not naturally and inherently divided by gender. We made this ridiculous gender divide. And we can take it down, at any time.

That said, if you want to know what the awesome engineering toys are that we play with in this house, I can tell you a bunch. Like most people we started with the basics like Legos, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. Those never get old, but I’ll assume most of you already have those.

1. Gears! Gears! Gears! Lots of bright colors, lots of gears and levers. Awesome for kids of pretty much any age. A simple and engaging starter set for three-year-olds to start learning basic mechanics, though they won’t know that’s what they’re doing.

2. Snap Circuits Jr. A functional and exciting introduction to electrical engineering and circuitry. Big, bright, simple and it works! I hope it goes without saying that you should be playing with this with your kid, not instead of playing with your kid.

3. K’NEX. The only thing we ever had that hurts worse than a Lego when you step on it. But these things are like Legos from another dimension, way more variety and potential and have all sorts of belts and pulleys for making functional machines. These were probably our daughter’s favorite thing.

4. Erector Sets. If you thought these were awesome when you were a kid, they’re way better now. I could still play with Erector sets all day. You can get sets of all sizes, and honestly, there is a very good chance of finding them used on Craigslist, Freecycle or at Goodwill. Timeless, and time-consuming.

5. Roominate. This do-it-yourself dollhouse is perfect for younger kids who are solid with manipulatives, not quite ready for engineering, and like the “storyline” of playing with dolls. I love Roominates, and plan on spending a lot of time (after this Christmas) playing with this with the three-year-old, because I cannot stand another moment of the Fisher Price Farm.

No offense, it was fun and provided lots of creative play, but after a dozen years I’m done with that thing. Old MacDonald can go have a cow somewhere else.

6. Crayon Physics. This is a computer thing, not a toy, but I cannot count how many hours we spent playing with it. It is a super simple, animated lesson in physics, that feels like a game, because it is. Honestly, this, more than anything else, might be the thing that sent our daughter down the path from “tinkerer” to “engineer.” Imagine if Angry Birds were actually interesting, awesome and educational, that’s what Crayon Physics is.

7. Remote Control Machines. Exactly what it sounds like, kits that contain construction materials, circuitry and controllers to build RC machines of your own. They say ages eight to 14, which I suspect is a CPSC thing, because of small parts that ids can swallow. Realistically, I’d put these at six to 10, because they’re fairly simple and if a kid’s gonna be a geek, they’re gonna surpass this by the time they’re 11 or so.

8. Skyrail! I almost forgot this one until someone pointed it out to me. Skyrail is suspension tracks that you can connect in limitless combinations and roll balls through like a roller coaster. It’s engineering and physics and adrenaline all in one.

You can just go to Amazon, or anywhere else, and find tons of engineering sets for girls. The secret is that you can’t look “for girls,” but that’s not because the set don’t work for girls, it’s because people still market to boys and girls differently. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy it!

As for pink engineering toys for girls? I’m not buying it. To me, honestly it perpetuates the idea that girls need things to be cute and pink and soft. We don’t.

And in some weird way, it also makes it seems like girls who don’t like engineering aren’t smart. Like the manicured and pink-loving amongst us are somehow “lesser” girls, because we’re less like boys. I don’t buy that either. Nor do I buy that boys who are artistic and creative and like a colorful flare are more like girls.

I think that kids are kids, and people are people, and we get to make the world how we want it, not how others tell us we have to buy it.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photos: Amazon.}

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