I’m about to travel to Denmark, the home of LEGO toys, to lead a session called “Girl Power STEM” at an international conference. I’ll speak about the challenge of engaging girls in science, technology, engineering and math studies. My primary message is that we need to start young, as early as preschool and kindergarten. One strategy I suggest is using open-ended construction toys to challenge and inspire girls to experiment and innovate. As I prepare for my trip I’ve been taking a closer look at the history of LEGOs and the efforts this Danish toy company has made to engage both boys and girls in creative and educational play.
The first LEGO toy factory was founded in Billund, Denmark in 1932. The name “LEGO” is derived from the Danish words “leg godt,” which means “play well.” Originally, the LEGO factory made only wooden toys, such as trains. Eventually, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of the factory’s founder, developed “LEGO Mursten” which means “LEGO Bricks.” The iconic plastic brick design was trademarked in 1954.
Christiansen was a visionary leader and in 1963 he presented the company with ten product standards including “quality in every detail” and “unlimited play potential.” Of special interest is the second standard, which reads, “For girls and for boys.” These standards show that engaging both girls and boys in LEGO play has been a priority for this toy company for a long time. LEGO marketing in the 1970’s and 1980’s indicated that LEGO was striving to meet that standard. Ads like the one shown here celebrate the open-ended and creative nature of LEGO bricks for both boys and girls.
But in the 1990’s LEGO began manufacturing products based on media franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Bionicle, and things start to go awry. This was a dark time for LEGO toys. Literally dark. The color palettes for the toys and the packaging included mostly dark blue, gray and black, with just a touch of bright bloody red. LEGO sales went down and by 2004 the company experienced a significant deficit.
Now, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, LEGO has rebuilt its solid financial base but continues to struggle to meet the needs of girls. According to NPR, in 2011, 90% of LEGO consumers were boys.
To draw more girls to LEGO play, in 2012 LEGO launched a product line called “LEGO Friends.” This toy line features a posse of girl dolls in pastel ruffled skirts with names like Mia and Emma. The play sets include a hair salon, a shopping mall, a beach house and a juice bar. The LEGO Friends toys have been widely criticized in the media for perpetuating gender stereotypes but they have sold well.
I hope that LEGO Friends serves as a gateway toy that draws girls to try other kinds of LEGOs and other kinds of construction toys. But the LEGO Friends play sets (not unlike the Star Wars and Bioncle play sets of the 1990s) don’t allow the child to create her own original story. The setting and the characters, even the names of the characters, have already been chosen for her. I believe that LEGO Friends don’t meet Godtfred Kirk Christiansen’s standard of “unlimited play potential.”
As I visit Denmark next week and meet educators from all over the world, I’ll be on the watch for new and better ideas for engaging girls in creative and innovative play experiences.