Monday, June 16, 2014

Generation Grit: Better Toys for Boys

The best toys are ones that allow for trial and error, encourage exploration through touch and are based on pretending and imaginary play. So says Kim John Payne, M.Ed., author of one of the very few "parenting advice" books that resonated with me: Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

I think most of us can agree that our children have too many toys with unnecessary -- not to mention annoying -- bells and whistles, made from plastic in a factory in China that probably has terrible working conditions and not particularly high safety standards. So I am completely on board with Payne's approach to simplification: less plastic, more imagination.

But besides my dismay at spending money on plastic trinkets, something else about toys bothers me: their overtly gendered aspect. I wrote recently at Mamalode about my refusal to accept my son's supposed "biologically predetermined" love trains and trucks.

Not content with my own anecdotal hunch, however, I bought another book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot, to see what science said about the issue. Was a love of trucks (and all other objects we identify as "boy things") really genetically programmed? Was there something about a boy's brain that made him love trucks?

Eliot says, in a nutshell that there is "surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains." The same, however, certainly cannot be said for adult men and women. That's because one of the most important characteristics/attributes of the brain is its "plasticity," or the fact that "the brain actually changes in response to its own experience." She writes:
Learning and practice rewire the human brain, and considering the very different ways boys and girls spend their time while growing up, as well as the special potency of early experience in molding neuronal connections, it would be shocking if the two sexes' brains didn't work different by the time they were adults.

Enter Generation Grit. Founder and entrepreneur Laura Hale is the mother four children – three girls and a boy. As mother of three girls, she applauded the backlash against traditional girls’ toys -- princess fatigue, anyone? -- in the form of some great new products like Goldie Blox, which seeks to "get girls building," and, hopefully, excited about engineering and science, and role models like the female scientist Lego minifigure.

But what about her little boy? A part from construction toys and vehicles, the only role models were superheroes. "I love superheroes," says Hale, "but I also long for my son to have heroes who are regular boys. And wouldn't it be great if the heroes were featured in page-turning adventure books, not on screens?”

Yes. Yes! Because boys' exposure to superheroes' overly developed musculature can be just as damaging as girls' exposure to Barbie's gravity-defying dimensions. And teaching boys that they must be stoic saviors is just as problematic as teaching girls their role is to be saved. If, as Lise Eliot writes, our brains are the product of our experiences, don't we want our boys exposed to role models other than superheroes who swoop in to save the universe and larger-than-life video game soldiers who shoot to kill?

Instead, Generation Grit is seeking funding to bring to life a collection of characters for boys. Each character has an action figure, books and accessories to spark hours of reading and imaginative play. The first character is fourteen-year-old Mac Mason, whose story takes place in 1943 on the home front during World War II. Although Mac is an avid baseball player, he feels overshadowed when his athletic British cousin William comes to California to escape the London bombings. Things change when the two uncover clues to a fraudulent rations ring. They have to figure out how to work together to save a friend from being falsely accused. Mac's adventures include smugglers, ciphers, mystery and an epic camping trip.

While the book revolves around Mac’s adventures and the ration mystery, it also walks through important issues of friendship, ego and courage. The book is intended for middle grade readers, ages 8-12.

Mac Mason's accessories. Photo courtesy of Generation Grit's Kickstarter campaign.

Support Generation Grit's Kickstarter campaign before July 3, and be among the first to receive the new toys and books. For those who back Generation Grit, the company is offering the opportunity to get the 10-inch Mac Mason adventure figure, the softcover edition of his chapter book and his collection of accessories. Not to mention the chance to support better toys for boys.

Disclosure: I was compensated for this post by Generation Grit, but all opinions are my own. I rarely do product reviews or sponsored posts and only accept assignments that are personally compelling to me.