Escaping the Toy Box

Why I set out to create building toys for girls, and ended up inviting boys to play too.


Two years ago I set out to create building toys for girls. I interviewed dozens of families, created four iterations of prototypes which I tested with girls, had a successful kickstarter campaign, paired up with an awesome children’s book illustrator, joined a startup accelerator program, kicked off manufacturing, launched five Build & Imagine StoryWalls playsets, and won “Rising Star Toy Inventor of the Year”. I live and breathe our mission to get girls building thereby helping them to overcome the STEM gender gap. Yet somewhere along the way, I decided to invite boys to play too.

This is the story of my inspiration, and my struggle, to escape the (very gender segregated) toy box.


Why Girls Need Building Toys

Laurie building as a child

Laurie building as a child

I was a lucky kid. My scientist dad and artist mom gave me lots of tools to build with. I built houses for my toy figurines out of sticks, gingerbread, and building bricks. I spent hours making up stories for the characters that lived in my little worlds, and I loved it.

Most girls have not been so fortunate to have received building tools as toys. Historically, 90% of the construction toy category has targeted boys. The color schemes, marketing, play-set themes, and store merchandising have signed, “NO GIRLS ALLOWED!” This is a big deal because these types of toys develop foundational spatial reasoning, design, and problem solving skills to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These are fields in which women represent only 24% of the workforce, resulting in a gender gap in innovation. Toys can make a difference.

Change is in the air. In the past few years the construction category has seen explosive growth in girl players. They now represent 28% of the category, and growing.

I founded Build & Imagine because I wanted to help shape what the construction play experience was going to be like for girls. In particular, I wanted to make sure it was approached in a more thoughtful way than just a pink reskinning of existing building sets.



Exclusion is Discrimination

Entrepreneurs, much like politicians, are expected to make bold claims to excite their audience, such as: “our toys will create the next generation of female engineers!” But real life is more complex than these statements capture, and taking such an approach may actually contribute to the very gender obstacles we aim to overcome.

As I’ve gotten Build & Imagine off the ground, I’ve laid the case for why building toys for girls are essential and why the storytelling aspect of our toys are optimized for girls. I’ve simultaneously danced around the issue of precisely which gender our toys are for, often (awkwardly) phrasing it as, “they are for girls (and boys!)” My advisers have suggested that I just come right out and proudly shout from the rooftops, “Our toys are for girls!” How simple and clarifying that would be…and yet I can’t help but think it would contribute to the very discrimination I hope Build & Imagine will help overcome.

By classifying our play-sets as “building toys for girls”, we’d be subtly indicating that “girls” are a category with homogeneous interests, and that they need separate toys to engage in “boy” play mechanics like building. It implies that girls are not free to choose whatever toys personally interest them, and creates a “no boys allowed” zone, thereby also placing boys in a box.

Why would I want to replicate the frustrating model that the construction toy category, and toy industry at large, has used for decades: segregating and excluding kids based on their gender?

Toys develop critical skills and help a child to shape his or her view of the world and their own identity. Shouldn’t kids be exposed to a variety of skill developing toys and be encouraged to choose toys according to their individual interests? Don’t we have a responsibility to provide them with a wide range of choices so that they may develop a rich individualized identity and be open to a life full of possibility?


Let Toys be Toys, and Kids be Kids.

careersWhen designing for kids, the toy industry (as well as kids media at large), has routinely served up two polar extremes. Boys get heroic blue combat themed toys with lots of moving gizmos, and girls get static pink nurturing dolls and princesses. I just love this cartoon from SMBC that sums up the impact.

I’ve seen many parents in the blogosphere nostalgically call for a return to “gender neutral” toys. It’s true that toys have become more and more gender segregated over the years as toy companies recognize the financial benefit of selling brothers and sisters separate toys. While “gender neutral” sounds like something to aspire to, I think that all too often it’s used to mean that girls can play with what boys have typically played with, thereby devaluing typically feminine things. Instead I’d advocate for a “gender inclusive” approach in which we provide kids with a range of toy choices inspired by a wider definition of who we believe girls and boys to be, and then invite children to pick according to their interests, rather than their gender.

“Engineering toys for girls” are performing an important role to help girls develop foundational STEM skills. This is an amazing step forward, but the challenge arises when children derive the conclusion that gender dictates the choices available to them (even when those choices now include some pretty cool building sets). It’s all about having choices. I am excited for how far we’ve come these past few years and hopeful the future will continue to bring an expansion of choices as well as a welcoming of any child who wants to play.


Designing for Inclusivity

Before we started illustrating our first characters we explored who we wanted them to be. Words like “friendly”, “smart”, “strong”, “adventurous”, and perhaps most importantly, “welcoming”, were voiced.

Our dolls are drawn with open arms and open mouths, ready to engage in a friendly conversation. They have eight year old bodies, and are quite intentionally missing the typical doll face with pouty lips and makeup caked eyes. They represent multiple ethnicities and include both girls and boys. They are our ambassadors, inviting children to build and imagine.


Pushing Expectations

We have a challenge in designing set themes to engage girls, without prescribing narrow preferences to them as a group. In a toy world that has become very gender binary, it’s actually quite challenging to determine how to balance these objectives!

As one example, when I debuted our “Marine Rescue Center” play-set at ToyFair, the big industry tradeshow, many toy store owners referred to it as “the boy one”. Now I admit we did a few confusing things that signaled this to the buyers despite the set featuring a female character. We used a blue color (it is nautical themed after all), and we included magnetic accessories that were scientific instruments (including microscopes and sonar devices). Gasp!


The tough thing is that some parents are likely to make the same assumption. We’ve become accustomed to using color palettes and themes as signals for what toys are appropriate. How do we break the mold to free our kids?

I was in a specialty neighborhood toy store a few months ago when I overheard the owner helping a woman pick a birthday present for her niece. The toy store owner pulled out a number of interesting toys, several of which I considered to be girly. Finally the aunt said out of frustration, “No I told you I need a toy for a girl! What do you have that has princesses or fairies on it?”

Build & Imagine is approaching this challenge by pairing the familiar with the aspirational. Think of it as push and pull. Our “Day at the Bach” set has a café scene (familiar), and a surfboard workshop where Emily our engineer designs and builds surfboards to sell (aspirational). Some sets will skew more familiar, such as Malia’s Beach House, and others more aspirational, such as The Marine Rescue Center. We’re just getting started. Your feedback will help us to know if we’re striking the right balance, and help us to shape the future of the product line.


Nobody deserves to be locked in a toy box

Build & Imagine’s first few building sets welcome girls into the construction toy category via leading girl characters and narrative driven play. Building with these sets will help kids develop foundational skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. We designed these building sets especially for girls, but please don’t expect us to say they are just for girls. We invite all kids (and kids at heart) to build and imagine with us. Through exposing our children to a wide range of play styles and themes we can help them develop a rich individualized identity and encourage the belief that all interests are open to everyone.

Warmest regards,
Laurie Peterson
Founder of Build & Imagine





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