Getting outside with science: can it build momentum of interest?

stick insect science education biology entomolgyFun Junction currently has a bug infestation…but, you know, the good kind: ‘Insect Lore’ recently sent us two lovely new stick insects. This builds on our population of Fun Junction pets which, up till now, consisted solely of some aqua dragons. We have Barbara and Fetch (get it ‘Fetch the stick insect’, you can thank one of our facebook likers for that wee pun).

We had Barbara and Fetch along at our stall at Perth’s garden and outdoors show last weekend and it gave us a chance to show off all the fun sciency stuff kids can do outdoors without even realising they’re doing any sciency stuff (does that make sense as a sentence? It sounded right in my head). Getting kids into science and helping them to feel comfortable about asking questions about the world around them is vital, both for parents and educators, but there’s a tricky issue when it comes to maintaining interest.

really gross scienceThere’s a rising realisation at the moment that a lot of girls are not engaging with science after a certain age. When we try to understand why this is happening, we have to consider the host of social stages that girls are going through (not to say that boys don’t experience their own, just as affective, stages). These social changes are thinning the numbers slowly and surely all the way through primary school, high school and on into adult life. Surely anything that increases interest at a young age is likely to provide that smidgen more momentum to help girls stay interested as they mature.

There are of course a host of other issues to tackle, possibly most pressing being the cultural idea that maths and science are for boys. However, I could easily get bogged down in discussing this so just for this post I just want to look at ways of building a level of interest with some real momentum, in the hopes that the children that experience it start to think of themselves as scientists from a very early age.

pop up Port-a-Bug bug enclosure catcher biology science toy children resourceThis is where outdoor engagement with wildlife can be helpful. Children can monitor the quantity of wildlife and the behaviour of that wildlife throughout the year, developing an emotional investment in what can only be regarded as scientific research (albeit on a fairly small scale). This can be as simple as setting yoghurt tub traps under a hedge and noting what you find. When you add some educational aides to the mix it makes it even easier to get kids interested; this can range from bug catchers that let them see the mini-beasts they encounter up-close and personal, all the way to insect habitats in your home or classroom which allow children to observe insect behaviour throughout the day.

In terms of the kinds of toys Insect Lore has put together they offer loads of educational aides which are functional whilst managing to remain entertaining and different. Every one of their products draws children in to find out more about the living world around them and on top of this the sets have a bright cheerful feel that can sometimes be so sadly absent from educational toys (especially science-related toys). The simplest way to tell you about what they provide is with a quick run-down (I’ll throw in some mentions for some other companies along the way too):

Insect lore Creature Peeper biology entomology children toy resource classroomNavir Bug Viewer biology entomolgy children toy resourceJars and magnification: There’s something really startling about seeing what an insect (any insect) really looks like. Give a child a magnifying glass and an insect and you’re basically sending them into an alien encounter. The physicality and behaviour of insects is so different to our own that children (and most adults too to be honest) can’t help but be enthralled by what they see (just look at Rose-Lynn Fisher’s ‘Bee’ to see what I mean). At Fun Junction we stock a heap of magnifying bug jars (by Insect Lore and Navir, among others) that vary in size and functionality from mini jars that can fit in a pocket, to large display jars with multiple-angle magnifying viewing windows). Insects just won’t look the same to a child again.

insect lore Living_Twig indian stick insect biology entomology children toy resource classroominsect lore Live_Butterfly_Garden biology entomology children toy resource classroomStick insects and butterflies: This next collection pushes things to a different stage of commitment. With bug jars you’re typically responsible for an insect for at the most a few minutes. However, with a butterfly or stick insect pack you’re watching insects develop from an egg to a full-blown adult. This process can take a few weeks (as is the case for butterflies) or it can mean as much as a couple of years of care and attention (a stick-insect’s life-span). Along with the extra responsibility there comes the advantage of being able to show children the entire life cycle of a creature in real time. For those who think the end of a stick insect’s life-cycle might be a bit difficult for a child to take the release of a net-full of butterflies may be a much more attractive option (I know my eldest wouldn’t cope too well with the death of a pet at this stage, he’s only 5 just now).

navir_Optic_Wonder biology entomology children toy resource classroomOther resources: Insect Lore also makes a range of other resources that can help children to understand insects and insect behaviour. This includes life-cycle figures, butterfly feeders, bug’s-eye-view goggles and many other things to use for display and play which allow children to feel connected with studying insects.

These are just a few products that can help develop a momentum of interest in science in children (I’ve set up the images so that clicking on them takes you to the product page where you can find out more). There are heaps more science toys that we stock at Fun Junction and I’ll definitely talk about science toys again in future. Are there any ways that educators or parents have found of sparking that kind of interest? I’ve already mentioned yoghurt tub traps (you dig a hole, put in a fairly large plastic yoghurt tub which makes it harder for insects to climb back out, and then you come back the next day to see what insects have fallen into the trap), but are there any other home-made methods you know of to help kids get in touch with the natural world around them? As always I love to hear from you and if you fancy catching up with me on twitter you can get me here. Thanks for reading, all the best, John

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Gendered toys and the Blind Buying problem: ‘What have you got for an eight year old girl?’

create your top model creative studio by depesche

Top Model outsells every other toy (about 5 to 1) for 8 year old girls at Fun Junction. It’s by far the most popular toy picked by the girls themselves.

We’ve all heard parents say things like ‘that’s not a good toy for you, that’s for…’. In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all probably said it ourselves at some point. We tell our children that a toy isn’t appropriate for them for one reason or another. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the reasons for this are completely legitimate, as the toy may be too advanced or pose a danger to your child. However, there are times when some parents just don’t have a reason, or at best we have a reason which is likely to wither in the face of cross examination.

I work in a toy shop, I have done on-and-off for more than half of my life. I hear what parents really say to their children and to be honest the media (/social media) can be kind of harsh on parents who are choosing toys. Despite the occasional shocker like ‘girls don’t build stuff’ or ‘boys that play with dolls turn into p*@fs’ (yes I have heard this, thankfully the boy in question wasn’t actually within earshot) the overall response of parents to their children is fairly open minded. The problem only really hits its zenith when people are buying for other children. When party time comes along parents of the children invited often get a check-list of ‘favourites’; things that will avoid disappointment and assure the buyer that they’ve not wasted their money.

‘She likes horses and fairies’, ‘He likes Lego’, ‘He’s a really active boy’, ‘she likes drawing’

A brilliant set and one I know boys and girls would both love but again it doesn't fit the averages

Really Gross Science‘ is a fantastic science set and one I know boys and girls would both love but it’s generally not picked by 8 year old girls

I hear these descriptions (and many similar wish lists) so often that I’ve got a set list of go-to products to fit. It makes the whole thing easy, seamless, unchallenging and, most importantly for all involved on busy Saturdays (where multiple siblings might all be attending different parties on the same morning/afternoon) such lists save time.

Sidebar: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gender targeting in this kind of situation but less people seem concerned about our growing need to force children from stage to stage whilst exclaiming ‘they sure grow up fast don’t they!’. I personally think it’s just as dangerous as the growing gender segregation of toys (I’ve discussed this before here and here) but I won’t get into that too much just now. Sidebar over.

Anyway, here’s the issue that’s really amping up the gender/age divide in toys: combine the need for speed in the choosing of a birthday present with the gender/age specific advertising that kids are bombarded with and you start to see why toy companies have been favouring the targeting of specific groups with a particular line of toys. If a box is clearly, unambiguously, proclaiming that it’s ‘perfect for an 8 year old girl’, then you can bet your butt that thousands of 8 year old girls across the country will be getting at least one for their birthday.

With this in mind of course when Christmas comes around many of these children will pick the big, expensive, heavily advertised toys from the same range to add it to their Christmas list. But the reason for this isn’t just exposure to Christmas advertising, or even in-store displays; they’ve been playing with a cheaper element/elements from the same range since their birthday. It’s part of their life, they’re emotionally invested in the toy and they want to add to the world they’ve been playing in for months.

Lego Friends a brilliant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

Lego Friends a vibrant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

You will not deny a child this, they won’t allow it and if you force the issue you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent who breaks their dreams and dismantles a world of play that feels comfortable and familiar. Step by step, year by year this relationship between child and brand will grow stronger, until eventually advertising won’t matter, they won’t need to hear about the next thing out, all they’ll know is that they want it. And all this because of a toy/toys they got for their birthday.

I constantly try to explain this problem when discussing gender and toys: it’s not as simple as stopping advertisers/toy companies/toy stores from segregating sections (though this plays it’s part). It’s got a lot more to do with an emerging culture of ‘all the class’ birthday parties where all 30 or so children in a class are expected to attend, and bring a gift, whether they’re the birthday girl’s/boy’s best friend or someone who barely talks to them. With unfamiliarity comes generalisation. If you don’t know a child you have to guess what present they’d like based on the tiny amount of information you have. Sometimes (a lot of the time) that’s just an age and their gender. Of course we’ll see people hurry to buy generalised toys aimed at ‘eight year old girls in general’, they have no other option.

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child's hand, brilliant toy but not generally picked by 8 year old girls

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child’s hand, brilliant toy (but again it doesn’t fit the averages) you can get them here.

I try to show people alternatives and to be honest most are chomping at the bit to find something different (they don’t want the child getting 30 of exactly the same toy). However, the problem remains that we’re both entirely, unalterably, in the dark about the actual personality of the child they’re buying for. All we have to work with is a vague list of interests (if we’re lucky) combined with their age and gender. I apologise to anyone from Let Toys Be Toys who reads this but so long as people are in the dark about who they’re buying for I’ll go for the numbers and help them pick the toy that the average child of that age and gender would like.

This is the real problem driving companies to appeal to a specific age/gender and possibly the only solution will be to get to know a lot more about the children in your child’s class. The only way we’re going to open up diversity in play is by knowing children as individuals and for a large portion of the toy buying population this currently is often just not an option.

Keep in mind that on average a parent will probably be taking their child to parties for around half of the Saturdays in the year. If they have more children then they’ve got more parties to buy for. It’s a big expense, even though the individual purchases don’t look like much (maybe an average of £7-£10 per gift), consider what that mounts up to throughout the year. When you add in the expense of travel and any other peripherals (costumes etc.) it’s easy to see why parents are trying their hardest to avoid wasting money. No one wants to imagine that the gift they bought has been sent un-played-with to a charity shop, so they play the odds, pick something that’s statistically likely to go down well, and keep their fingers crossed.

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

So what’s the solution? I have none, I’m sorry but I don’t. We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class. So Let Toys Be Toys (and the many other groups rightfully campaigning to end the ridiculous segregation of toys by gender) remember: many/most of the people buying toys are just (through no fault of their own) shooting in the dark and despite all the re-named sections and re-packaged toys, these people will still come up to the sales assistant and ask ‘Do you have something that would suit an eight year old girl?’

This is where the next battle will have to be fought and it will be a lot harder going for us all.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what could be done to ease this situation? Do you think I’ve painted too bleak a picture here? As always I welcome any comments/questions/tirades/meanderings, thank you for reading and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up with toy related news/discussions, all the best, Cheers, John

Step asside Barbie, ‘Lammily’ is taking a turn in the spotlight!

LammilyNickolay Lamm has been at it again. You may remember his make-up free Barbie that I posted about a few months ago, well his next step was to re-imagine a Barbie-style doll which met the average proportions of a 19 year old (I assume in the US). His design prompted a demand for an actual working toy and so he put together a crowd-funding page to get the doll into production (with the help of ex-VP of manufacture at Mattel; Roger Rambeau). They’ve already exceeded their goal by double (as of 7th March 2014) so the doll is happening.

average_compositeThe opinions are starting to pour in, some of them surprisingly negative. The primary complaint seems to be that Lammily isn’t ‘average enough’, or that she’s ‘too pretty to be average’ and I don’t know what we could say to this. Is she pretty? Well yes, in an average kind of way, but there seems to be reams of research supporting the notion that when you average out a large number of faces you get an attractive (though perhaps not very distinctive) result. So that sorts the ‘too pretty to be average’ issue. To be honest given the research she’s too average not to be pretty.

The next issue is: is she really average? Do a large portion of young women have body shapes which look like Lammily’s? To be honest we may never get an answer on that. Every community you belong to may have women in it with a very different set of physical qualities. When you average their proportions out perhaps you’ll get something like Lammily’s dimensions but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one young woman in that group will have those proportions herself.

All of that said it’s hard to deny the fact that Lammily looks less alien, a lot more human and, most importantly, a lot more healthy than I’ve ever seen Barbie look. I would agree that Nickolay Lamm hasn’t really succeeded in making the most expressive or dynamic wardrobe for Lammily but in his defence Barbie has 60 years and the brunt of Mattel behind her selection of clothing. Overall there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Lammily apart from one glaring issue (at least for me): Lammily is an average nineteen year old. What age are the girls who will make up the target-audience of Lammily? Possibly nine or ten at the most?

groovyLottie Pony Flag Race CompFor all of Lammily’s positive attributes I have to side with a more realistic girl doll like ‘Lottie’ or Manhattan’s ‘Groovy girls’. This isn’t just because we stock them, in fact we stock them precisely because they’re a more realistic image for a young girl to try and imitate. There’s definitely a place for the aspirational enjoyment of an ‘adult-looking’ fashion doll but when it comes to producing something relatable, and something that places less emphasis on the importance of growing up quickly, I have to side with Lottie and the Groovies every time.

What do you think? Is Lammily ‘average’? Would you still prefer a Barbie? Are fashion dolls in general too mature for girls or is there an important aspirational element to that kind of play? As always your comments are more that welcome either below this post or you can feel free to send me a tweet (you can also find my twitter feed to the right of this post). Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

P.S As a side note, here’s a defence of Barbie dolls ‘written by’ the plastic icon herself (makes for interesting reading).

Boys just don’t sit!

020920131304If you have a son/sons then you’re apparently in for some difficulty because boys are just not able to sit still long enough to do anything constructive/productive. It would seem that around a decade ago, somewhere in the world, someone sat down and decided that boys are incapable of sitting still. I’m not sure of the reasoning, perhaps they thought that testosterone prevents the brains of the males of our species from focussing on one thing for longer than 5 seconds…

boomOooh what was that? cool…explosions…

Anyway what was I saying, oh yeh, boys are the goldfish of the human world, fleeting from one thing to the next brimming with energy and the need to fight. At least that’s what seems to have become the perspective of a fairly vocal minority. The funny thing is though that traditionally ‘boyish’ toys like Meccano, Lego, Airfix etc. are particularly demanding both on one’s ability to focus and on one’s patience.

centepede, comando etc etcI’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve heard say ‘Oh he just won’t sit’ and it saddens me to think that so many wee boys are missing out on the entertainment of crafts and construction (not to mention the handy skill-set they contribute to as well). What’s more the consensus seems to be that boys of eight years and up are only interested in computer games. I’ll agree that if the games available now had been around when I was a kid you’d have had a hard time pulling me away from them. The thing is though I was pretty hooked on games and TV myself as a kid but the difference was that we only had one TV in the house. Kids TV only lasted a couple of hours after school and a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday morning. On top of that I had to be really good if I wanted to hook my wee Atari 2600 up to the TV (that or I had to challenge my dad to a game).

Because of this I needed to find other ways to occupy myself and so I delved into my box of Lego and Meccano and got building, once I got started you wouldn’t see me for hours. I wonder if this is the problem now, because kids are so accustomed to getting the entertainment they want when they want it, they have genuine problems when trying to occupy themselves outside of that environment. Add to this children’s (all children’s) built-in need to expend energy and the room left for more mellow pursuits seems quite small.

Big-MacThis is where parents come in. I will make a point of not blaming parents for this state of affairs, because I really don’t think there is any blame to be had. Right now, unlike any time in history, our access to leisure, diversion and entertainment arguably requires less effort/money than our access to food. In a world like this we need to be careful to vary our ‘entertainment diet’ or we risk mental obesity: that is, if our children grow up without the capacity to shut off from technology and do something different, pretty soon the only way they’ll be able to think will be in terms of entertainment technology.

A varied life is a fulfilling one and though parents have never had to do this before we are now in a position where we have to think seriously about harbouring a peculiar ability in our children; the ability to entertain themselves. Not with a tablet, a PC or some other passive entertainment media, but with something solid in the world. If they can’t connect to the physical world around them there is a danger that soon the only world they’ll know will be digital.

Having your level 49 Paladin killed in an online game shouldn’t get the same response as the loss of a pet. The physical world didn’t cease to be when the internet was invented and we should be wary of letting our kids disappear into the web. I love the internet, I love the artistic freedom it has produced and I’m a big fan of the diversion you can get from gaming, TV catch-up facilities, and all the other wonders it has to offer, but with anything this good there has to be a down side and the down side is clear: There is a genuine possibility for a child to find their virtual life more fulfilling than their life in the physical world. It is our job as parents (a new job I might add) to ensure that this doesn’t happen and that every now and then our kids get the chance to interact with something which doesn’t only exist behind a screen.

Just as our parents had to struggle to find the balance between ‘junk’ and more ‘wholesome’ food, we now have to consider ways of helping our kids to enjoy both easy and more involved forms of entertainment. How do we do that? I hear you ask, well you tell me. My eldest is still only five years old, I’m at least a couple of years away from the digital conflict. Perhaps you have some war stories to share.

Sorry for the long post, I shouldn’t wait so long between postings, it seems to produce a backlog of ideas. As always thank you for reading and feel free to share your opinion on either the attention span of boys, or on the role of digital entertainment below, Cheers, John

Tuesday repost comes very late: Barbie takes off the warpaint

I’m currently working on a couple of new posts but the images I want to use for them are at home (I’m at work right now) so for now I thought I’d fill the silence with a repost of one of my most popular posts ‘Barbie takes of the war paint’.

barbie no makeup

The above picture has been doing the rounds on facebook etc. as a viral photo. On top of this there are also a whole selection of alternative images ‘by artist and researcher’ Nickolay Lamm (you can read about this in a Huff post article). Lamm took famous dolls such as Barbie, Cinderella and a Bratz doll and gave them a similar treatment to the image above. The reactions have been mixed. When I first published this post on our facebook page we saw a lot of people point exclaim the Barbie image above looks ‘horrible’ (or words to that effect). If this is the stance someone wants to take then what can they do to defend the made-up fashion dolls? They could point out that, since these dolls are ‘fashion dolls’, the level of make-up which appears on their faces is reflective of the kinds of things girls will expect from fashion. One could also site the fact that a lot of these girls will see their mothers slap on the war paint on a daily basis as society seems to have developed a dress code for women which includes a big pile of chemicals smooshed all over their face.

cinderella no make upBratz no make-upTheir mums, aware that they’ll be judged according to these pressures, will no doubt take care to keep up with the demands of society. If the girl sees their mum like this then she’ll expect a doll like Barbie, who is supposed to be an adult, to be similarly adorned. This is how we cement social pressure; expose a young girl to an unrealistic notion of how a woman ‘should’ look on a day-to-day basis and just watch her take those pressures on board for herself.

Nickolay Lamm's version of a bare faced Barbie

Nickolay Lamm’s version of a bare faced Barbie

Maybe this depiction is unfair, make-up is a fairly standard part of everyday life for a large part of the female population. I’m also pretty sure there’s a large group of men who are envious of the fact that women have the luxury of covering up their blemishes and hiding their true health behind paint, whilst us ‘real men’ are socially obligated to bare our faces, warts and all,  to the world (OK we rarely actually have warts but you get my drift). There are powerful benefits to wearing make-up that will not be quickly abandoned by women (and I can understand why). That said should we really be exposing young girls to the notion that a woman must spend her entire life in make-up?

Are we supposed to believe that at a sleepover Barbie would take the time to put on her make-up before her friends turned up, or on a trip to the gym. Maybe she would, I’ve certainly heard of women who do this. Either way Barbie’s permanent make-up certainly gives that impression and worse yet it hides the truth of make-up; it both takes time from your day to put it on and, in a best case scenario, it is also characteristic of your wishes. Make-up can be done artistically, beautifully concealing the fact that it’s even there, it can be done exhibitively in vampish or more exciting styles with an element of carnival flair, becoming more like artistic face painting than simply accentuating what’s there already.

Make-up can be an adventurous and personal demonstration of a woman’s personality, with this in mind I can even see how it could, in some cases, empower a woman and allow her to feel in control of the way she appears to the outside world. In cases like these it can be the face that she wants to show to the world. However, it can also often be the face that a woman feels that they have to show to the world, and the problem with Barbie is that by taking the prep out of the equation, by removing the processes of donning the make-up and choosing how it will look; the individuality element can be hard to argue for. Barbie has the same make-up on whether she’s off on a date with Ken (and don’t get me started on his make-up) or just lazing around the Barbie dream house with her friends, and it’s this that makes the make-up look like part of the routine, it makes it look necessary rather than fun. (side note: I’m well aware that there’s a Barbie make-up studio but that’s hardly the same thing as it’s a giant bust of Barbie not an opportunity to paint the face of an actual Barbie doll.

Maybe for some women make-up really does feel like a necessity, I’ll also try and be be realistic here, societal pressure can be pretty heavy so in some cases I don’t doubt that it really is a necessity for some women’s lifestyles. With this in mind, Barbie’s permanent made-up appearance can translate (I won’t say must, but it certainly can translate) into a necessity to hide her face at all costs, and do we really want children to hear that message? “Your natural face is so unpleasant that from the moment you reach your teens you must wear face-paint at all times so that you can have a better one” Really!!? I think we can treat them better than that.

groovy

Groovy girls are available in both our Crieff and Perth shops

The fashion dolls we sell in our shops are called ‘Groovy Girls‘. They are plush dolls which are suitable for girls as young as three to play with and they don’t have permanent make-up. I will admit that their skin looks flawless (if a little fluffy, since they are plush toys) but for the vast majority of children flawless skin is kind of the norm. It’s only once we get our wonderful batch of hormones in our teens that the huge majority of us get to experience the joys of acne, boils and all manner of dermatological nasties.

Despite their flawless skin the groovy girls are a big step away from Barbie, you can dress them up in outfits, yes, but the emphasis is solidly on the fun of fashion, the diversity of expression available through your choice of clothes. Perhaps this is because the groovy girls are just that; girls. With this in mind it may be unfair to compare the grown up woman that is Barbie with these younger counterparts with their flawless skin and lack of societal pressure. But this simply makes my point stronger, why does a fashion doll for girls have to be a woman?

top-model-make-up

Top model, make-up designer, available in our stores

Fashion is something for all, young girls can experiment with their clothes just as much (if not more so) than adults can. I understand that the fantasy of living an adult life through a doll like Barbie must be appealing to them, but if it is fantasy why taint it with a social obligation, which they won’t actually feel the force of, for a decade or so? Why not reach a compromise and allow girls to do Barbie’s make-up for her, they could use a wipe-off coloured pen or brush to have fun with make-up and then clean Barbie’s face back to some normal tones. This way we introduce girls to the fun that a woman can have with make-up, whilst emphasising the fact that getting that make-up on takes time and planning. It could be more realistic too: for example, why bother to do Barbie’s make-up when she’s just about to dive in the pool (bath)? It’ll just come off anyway so it would be a waste of time. Girls could gain experience in the time-consuming properties of make-up and hopefully learn that, if anything, make-up is for times that they want to wear it not for use all day every day.

As always thanks for reading, I’m getting more readers every day and I’m grateful for every one of you. Sorry for the long post today, I guess I got a bit wound up there but isn’t this worth getting wound up about? I have two boys, they will grow up in a different social niche than the little girls they play with but I’ll do my damnedest to make sure that they don’t expect women to be made up all the time, the flip side is that those with daughters should be doing the same. I won’t let my sons expect to go out with a walking Barbie doll (at least in Barbie’s current incarnation), and I’ll do my utmost to teach them about the qualities that make for an excellent partner: like beauty that isn’t painted on, a sense of humour and a healthy outlook on life.

I’ll refrain from pointing at their mum too much, no boy wants that, but she’s pretty much my paradigm example of a fantastic and beautiful woman who doesn’t wear make-up all day every day (hey, I know she reads this occasionally, can you blame me for trying to score some brownie points every now and then?). This is something all parents need to tackle, not just those with girls, and while I completely understand the appeal of fashion dolls and will argue in their corner any day, do they really have to have the exact same make-up on all day every day? That just doesn’t sound very fashionable to me. Thanks again, (remember to follow and/or comment) Cheers, John

jack-reusen-cover-front2ONE LAST THING: I’m children’s author and would really love it if you popped over to the official site for my books. The Jack Reusen series is about a boy who accidentally tears holes between his world and a ‘Fey’. Fey is host to an array of magical people and creatures and some find their way through the breaches. One girl with a very unusual power falls through a breach and finds herself lost, scared and alone in a world she doesn’t understand. She seeks Jack out to help her find her way home and in the process the two of them find themselves pulled into something much bigger than they expected. Sinister forces are interested in Jack’s world and it’s up to Jack and his new friend to try and stop them. Please take a look at the official site if you have the time (I’d really appreciate it).

Tuesday Repost: Engendered toys: Is being domesticated really such a bad thing?

I keep going back to these gender posts but the whole topic of the role of toys in developing an understanding of gender fascinates me. Probably the most significant thing about it is that looking at this issue forces us to realise that we really can’t just say “it’s just a toy”. Toys can come with loaded concepts attached and can play a massive role in shaping who we become as adults.

Gender toys, domestic toys

I wrote about the topic of gender and toys a while ago and over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a considerable amount of readers seem to be dropping in from various places to look at that old post. I considered simply reposting it but the topic warrants more attention as there is so much more to be said than I could fit into my other post so here we are.

questions of genderI teach an adult learning course on philosophy and in our aesthetics class we somehow came on to the topic of the accoutrements which we use to define our identity. This moved pretty cleanly onto the topic of gender identity and the subtle identifiers we employ to recognise members of our gender. It was so difficult to describe the specifics of ‘manliness’ or ‘womanliness’ that we came to the conclusion that there probably aren’t any specifics to describe, and if that’s the case then it’s likely to be something highly engrained that we learn through seeing and doing.

It’s for this reason that I think that the gender identity that we are exposed to as children (from, amongst other things, childhood play) plays a, if not the central role in our development of both our personal identity and our understanding of gender, and this is where things get tricky. I have two sons and I’m patently aware that they are growing up in a world where gender identity is in flux, I want them to be responsive to the world they are growing up in but at the same time I don’t want them to develop personalities which are similarly in flux. I want them to be sure of who they are.

Homer's 'BBQ'

Homer’s ‘BBQ’

The women’s rights movement has been reworking the definition of what it is to be a woman since before I was born. The strange flip side to this is that there has been no parallel conscious redefinition of masculinity. This isn’t to say that masculinity hasn’t been redefined, as new roles, responsibilities and attitudes are developed through the media’s attempts to keep up with the changes in female identity, and this is where children’s play struggles. Whilst it’s funny to watch traditional archetypes be eroded (just look at Homer, ‘head’ of the Simpson’s household) it feels slightly uncomfortable for some parents to break with tradition when raising their sons.

cleaning set for kids

A simple brush and shovel set,  your wee ones will love helping out around the house (I know my two do)

A girl with a tool set is empowered but a boy with a buggy or a doll doesn’t have a similarly positive description to fall back on. It seems that by opening the working world up in the toys girls get to play with we have somehow belittled the importance of the domestic world. As a part-time house-husband I feel slightly offended that my contribution to the household is seen in a negative light, this belittlement is especially clear where a woman chooses a similar position in life. House-wives or ‘Stay at home mums’ can be seen by some as anti-feminist. I’m not getting into a debate about that here but I do want to point out that there is no ‘just’ about keeping a house in order. The resultant attitude towards domestic toys follows quite easily and has been developing in some quarters for years, one that sees these toys as a limiting factor; as some kind of shackle with which we bind our daughters, as ‘anti-feminist’. The reality is that, unless your child manages to leave home and instantly make enough money to hire a cleaner and a cook, they will have to do some domestic tasks for at least some portion of their lives. Why not expose them to this at an age when domestic tasks seem glamorous? Regardless of whether they are male or female there’s nothing wrong with teaching your child to be house-proud.

Because of the negative connotations associated with women as house-wives somehow domestic toys have found themselves somewhat villainised. Personally I don’t see why we can’t help our children to celebrate the domestic. Surely if a child learns to enjoy housework there’s at least a chance that you might find yourself with a teenager who may occasionally help out around the house, or better still an adult who can take care of themselves. Isn’t that a pretty important skill to foster in a child from a young age?

As always thanks for reading and I welcome any opinions that you want to share, Cheers, John

Tuesday repost: Engendered toys: Construction toys

Had a couple of conversations on twitter about gender the other day and it made me want to revisit this post, just to clear up any confusion people might have about how I feel about gendering toys for children. Hope you enjoy it and please feel free to fire back any comments you have (good or bad).

Construction toys

I originally wrote this post a few months ago when I came home from work to find Logan and Alexander helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad were watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY. When I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much a constant event in our house. As soon as somebody mentions a dad doing DIY we start to expect the kind of story that highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. This was never the case with my dad, he was generally careful; especially when it came to electrical repairs, to be honest I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without doing at least a bit of research into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I’ll be able to fix most things that go wrong in the house. That said, what I saw on TV sent a very different message, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.

new_4960802_retro-tv-icon-1I often have a good moan at the media blaming them for many of the woes of modern parenting but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’d bet that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop (possibly bigger now than ever, now that we have dedicated kids TV stations). I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you could expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have lost popularity from one generation to the next, and the sad fact is that they have.

Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. There’s no denying the massive role that computer games play in many young boys’ lives now compared even to when I was a kid (back in the 80s). What’s more we can’t ignore the role that the dreaded health and safety regulations (sometimes the killing stroke to some of the best toys) will have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.

tooltimeHowever, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to. However there is nothing inherent in the use of tools that excludes girls from playing. The debate about why girls typically choose pink, dolls, and fashion, and boys pick blue, construction and science toys rages on and my own perspective is hard to get a handle on in one post but I have tried in a previous post.

Describing shows like ‘Bob The Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’ as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.

In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). Sadly this set has sat there since before Christmas. I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s had little to no interest from children of the appropriate age. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).

lgst3241boys-are-stupid-throw-rocks-at-them-boys-are-stupid-poster

Really hate this meme, nothing positive about it and it’s not funny

This post has a lot in common with another post I did  about gender: in both I blame media depictions of day-to-day life which I think is  a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things, this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative. One move is seen as empowerment for girls but the alternative for boys seems to leave them questioning their abilities.

There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands is beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?