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Engineering Toys For Kids

November 26, 2013

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. The 7 & 3 year-olds were 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 her wife and her 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 GoldieBlox 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 GoldieBlox 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? 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 3 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.

713GSSg9ixL._SX522_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 3 year-olds to start learning basic mechanics, though they won’t know that’s what they’re doing.

81aySQ9SxRL._SL1500_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.

91Ugnd1PotL._SY450_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 DIY 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 3 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.

41h8f5zdPFL7. 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 8 – 14, which I suspect is a CPSC thing, because of small parts that ids can swallow. Realistically, I’d put these at 6 – 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.


91C-1Fue3AL._SL1500_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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bis4Bri permalink
    November 26, 2013 10:39 pm

    I think the draw of GoldieBlox is for moms like me. I recognized that my 6 yo daughter had an engineer’s brain years ago. As a former Barbie/princess/Disney lover I have often said, “Eden doesn’t like toys”. She likes toys. Just not the ones I’ve been buying. I’m going to buy a GoldieBlox set just because I like the message. More than that, they’ve inspired me to truly search for more STEM based toys for her. Thanks for the suggestions! I found little bits while pinning STEM toys to a wish list. Have any of your girls played with them and loved them>

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink
    November 27, 2013 6:21 am

    That’s awesome, I’m glad to hear it. But let me point our to you something that you already said. You said that YOU are the former Princess lover, not your daughter, and that you’ve been buying toys for her based on what YOU liked, not her. If she likes engineering toys, give her engineering toys. FWIW, I’m more like you, I never understood my daughter’s fascination with engineering, but I didn’t block it. That’s the point.;) Our middle daughter seems to be all about fashion and drama – and playing in mud – so she’s much more like me. 😉

    I hadn’t seen LittleBits, but they look great. I’ll get some!

  3. William Weber permalink
    November 27, 2013 9:48 am

    I think you miss the point. It’s not that an engineering toy for girls has to be pink. It’s that’s some girls actually like pink would rather play with something pink and pretty and that’s Ok. Being interested in engineering doesn’t preclude liking dresses and princesses or fashion. Both can and should co-exist. Some girls who are interested in building and engineering look at the available slate of Lego and other building toys and are disappointed. My daughter loves princesses, dressing up and every typical “girly” thing under the sun. And I’m just fine with that. But she also wants to build things and before things like Goldieblox and Lego Friends came around she would look at the toy shelves and be bummed out because none of it appealed to her.

    I dislike the bad rap that pink gets in this world. A girl can like pink and like engineering and want an engineering toy that’s pink and has puppies. It doesn’t say anything more or less about her. You say “we don’t need special pink engineering toys for girls” and I think there’s just as much wrong with that statement as the general dearth of STEM opportunities in our culture. In your very next sentence you say we need to expose our kids to whatever they are curious about, and that’s almost in direct opposition to the previous sentence. There are girls who will look at trucks and hard lines of an Erector set and just walk the other way. Make it pink and shift the focus to something other than bulldozers and I can tell you right now my daughter would demand to have one.

    Kids interests are as varied as their fingerprints and a pink engineer toy is going to jive just right for some kids and that’s a great thing.

  4. Alyssa Royse permalink
    November 27, 2013 9:56 am

    I don’t disagree with you. HOWEVER, in that case, just make pink toys, don’t say that because they are pink they are for GIRLS. Just toys. Not “boy toys” or “girl toys.” Pink is a color, not a gender indicator. People jibe with whatever they jibe with.

  5. Alyssa Royse permalink
    November 27, 2013 10:00 am

    In fact, that’s what pisses me off even more. It’s like, in order for girls to like it, it has to be softer and gentler and sweeter. That’s bollocks. For SOME KIDS, boys and girls, soft colors and engaging story lines are required, and that’s awesome. But that’s not because, you know, girlz…. Plus, making it a “girls” thing precludes boys, in the same way. It suggests that boys don’t like soft colors, gentler concepts and story lines. No.

    We don’t need to get to a place of “more gendered toys.” Quite the opposite. We need toys to be toys, not gendered at all.

  6. February 23, 2014 9:17 am

    I am so glad that I came across this website. I having been toying with the idea of buying Goldieblox for my daughter for a while now, but I wasn’t sure about how I felt about it. Now, I don’t think I will. As much as I may like what the toy teaches in a engineering sense, I do not like what it teaches in terms of the reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

    Thanks for offering up some alternatives for me that aren’t pink 🙂

  7. July 29, 2016 10:01 am

    Reblogged this on First Grade Findings.

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