If you have a child who’s at least in pre-school, then chances are you’ve heard of STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) or STEAM (same acronym meaning, just the A equals art).
What’s STEM about?
Getting kids interested in science and technology early on. Helping them to build enquiry skills, develop maths abilities and learn to love being ‘makers’. It’s about taking a once male-dominated kind of geeky category of professions and turning them into cool careers that draw in girls just as much as boys.
Hey, that’s all great. Who doesn’t think that more kids (or more girls, specifically) shouldn’t get involved in STEM education? Now that STEM’s in vogue blocks aren’t just for playful fun, they’re learning tools meant for creating well-engineered structures or for exploring physics in action. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, while we’re patting girls on the back for getting into STEM we’re also neglecting the idea that every child (yes, both boys and girls) should be exposed to a variety of types of learning.
Target may have taken down their ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs, but that doesn’t stop parents and educators from putting Barbie (and her doll friends) into the female file. If we’re pushing what used to be thought of as traditionally male activities (i.e., STEM) on girls, why not do the same with boys and ‘caregiver’ types of toys? What happened when our children grow up and enter the professions that they have begun training for in toddlerhood? What happens to all of those STEM girls who are now expected to choose developing the newest app in favor of developing their children? Or the boys who don’t give professions such as nursing, early childhood education or social services a thought?
It’s not entirely uncommon for women to leave their techy careers behind when they have children. Men, on the other hand, tend to stay in these types of jobs longer. Why? Maybe because their wives have quit their jobs to stay at home with the kids, care for the house and keep all-things running smoothly. Why push girls towards these careers, but not give boys the chance to learn less STEM-like skills? Even though putting science and technology on a pedestal has its advantages, what kind of message does, “Put down the dolly and pick up those plastic building bricks” say?
Obviously, the subject isn’t all or nothing. No one is forcibly shoving STEM education down girls’ throats or sheltering boys from Barbies. That said, it seems like there’s a growing trend towards devaluing anything that has been historically a ‘girls’ activity or toy.
Anything STEM is viewed as developmentally beneficial – hands-on, explorative and active in every way. Now, compare that to a doll. Caring for a doll is somehow categorised as closed-off or not hands-on. But, is it? Just like block play teaches the child about math, science and engineering, dressing dolly up teaches caring and life skills.
This isn’t to say that every child who gives a doll a bath will become a stay at home mum or that caring for a stuffed animal equals a future career as a nurse. Instead it means that the child is broadening his or her array of abilities. Just like girls who tackle STEM education are opening their minds, so are boys who play with the traditional girl toys. Maybe if adults approach all subjects equally, kids can have a say in what they want to do.
Not only would giving boys the choice to play with ‘girls’ or ‘caregiver’ toys open them up to new ideas, but it could create a generation who values the jobs that go along with providing help to others. This means putting a higher value on careers such as nursing or teaching (especially early childhood teachers) and helping both men and women to understand that gender doesn’t dictate job choice.
Does this mean that you need to run to your local Target, take a trip down the now gender-neutral aisles and stock your cart with doll after doll for your son? Not at all. Simply open yourself up to the idea of offering choices beyond what’s popular opinion. Remind yourself that snuggling a doll or dressing up a teddy bear isn’t a hands-off activity. It’s just as hands-on as building a block bridge or tinkering with magnets, just in a very different way.