In many ways, little girls growing up in the United States today will have more freedom to determine their futures than ever. So why are they still aggressively marketed the same plastic pooping babies, Pepto-pink ponies, and anatomically outrageous dolls from 50 years ago?
Research increasingly shows that early childhood play shapes our skills, values, and modes of thinking as we grow older. But while products like GoldieBlox have started to deconstruct the age-old assumption that little girls simply don’t like building things, choices are still limited.
Now Roominate, a new toy designed by female Stanford University engineering grads, offers another alternative: the first wired dollhouse that kids build on their own. It's one of the few tools, gendered or not, that comes with electric circuits and few rules.
Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks, engineering graduates from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively, met within their first few days of master's programs at Stanford University, they say, because there weren’t many other girls. "That was actually one of the first conversations we had. Why didn’t any of our other female friends do engineering?" Chen says. "And then we considered that it was the things that we played with while we were younger that really inspired us."
For Brooks, the building bug set in when she first asked her father if Santa Claus might bring her some Barbies for Christmas. He was appalled at the idea, and gave his then-eight-year-old daughter a miniature saw instead. "He sent me off into the basement, and I was making dolls, and dinosaurs, and doll houses," she remembers. "The act of figuring it out, realizing when I made a mistake and how I could go around it, that’s what really got me into engineering."
More than a year after receiving nearly $86,000 through Kickstarter to build the initial product, Chen and Brooks are displaying Roominate at Manhattan’s annual Toy Fair this week. The set, manufactured in China, comes with various shapes for walls, floors, modular furniture, as well as coated, AAA battery-powered circuits designed for six-year-old fingers to put together.
But little girls aren’t just building triple bunk beds and decorating doll house rooms with the Roominate set. When I visit Roominate’s creators at their Toy Fair booth, Chen and Brooks are standing behind a model of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. It’s one modeled off of an 11-year-old’s design that originally featured pipe cleaners as suspension cables, and took half an hour for Chen and Brooks to recreate, they say. They’ve also seen test groups manufacture everything from amusement park rides with the spinning circuit motors to the Great Wall of China.
Still, while Chen and Brooks claim that their toy might be less "pinkified" than, say, GoldieBlox, the toy does have some trappings of stereotypical little girl-ness—pastels, two dolls, and two big-eyed pets. Parents, however, are reporting that little boys are using Roominate, too. That’s part of the reason why Chen and Brooks are also looking to expand into gender-who-cares-territory.
"We started this for girls, because it’s a problem we lived, that we continue to live. We want to get more females in the [science, technology, engineering, and math] field," Brooks says. "That’s why we started it, because we want to make this hands-on, creative, open-ended play. But as we’ve been developing it, we’ve been realizing that that kind of play is really missing for boys, too."