In a recent piece, the retail reporter for the New York Times reported that Mattel was introducing a Barbie construction set. Stop the presses! Twenty years ago, when I ran the Consumer Products division of Nickelodeon, we launched our first licensing partnership with Mattel to produce a line of gender-neutral activity toys that were designed to not only entertain girls and boys but to challenge them creatively as well. Long before the "green" movement became a mainstream marketing pitch, we created an open-ended construction set made from processed potatoes that allowed kids to design, cut, saw and lick together inventions. Unlike Erector Sets, where there were finite ways to combine the various parts, the potential constructions with Zog Logs were limitless, and unlike Lego, no plastics were involved.
What could go wrong with creating fun toys designed to appeal to both girls' and boys' imaginations? The industry and its unchanged gender approaches. Because part of Nickelodeon's mission was to create gender-neutral TV programming, all of our businesses reflected the same informing values -- which forced Mattel to break out of their rigid girl-toy/boy-toy organization to launch a new Activity-toy unit, designed to compete with Play-doh. Two problems emerged. The extant Mattel culture mounted defenses against the Nickelodeon foreign body, and retailers and distributors like Toys 'R Us -- who racked kids product in dedicated girls' and boys' aisles, had no idea where to sell our toys. The division and the initiative failed.
What has changed since then, according to the Times piece, is the underlying parental sociology. "Consumer surveys show that men are increasingly making the buying decisions for families, reflecting the growth in two-income households and those in which the women work and the men stay home. One-fifth of fathers with preschool-age children and working wives said they were the primary caretaker in 2010, according to the latest Census Bureau data. And 37.6 percent of working wives earned more than their husbands in 2011, up from 30.7 percent 10 years earlier." This means that manufacturers and merchandisers have had to re-tool their approaches to appeal to male consumers. In toy terms, this means that about 20% of new construction toys are targeting girls.
It's been obvious for a long time, as the Times piece notes, that "Research has shown that playing with blocks, puzzles and construction toys helps children with spatial development, said Dr. Susan C. Levine, chairwoman of the psychology department at the University of Chicago….Even controlling for other skills such as verbal and numerical skills, she said, children with better spatial thinking are more likely to eventually go into mathematics, engineering, science and technology."
Tapping into the need for more women in the sciences, I recently came across a terrific Kickstarter concept initiated by Debbie, a Stanford engineer, who has launched a company called GoldieBlox, an activity toy and series designed to encourage girls to become engineers.
I think it's wonderful – and more than a bit ironic -- that 20 years after we at Nickelodeon tried to create toys that challenged girls' and boys' creativity equally, and with a minimum of stereotyping assumptions, that it's men becoming primary caregivers that has been the demographic catalyst for breaking down the toy-equality barriers.