By Becky Yerak
For years, a general complaint about dolls has been that they send the wrong messages to children, whether it’s promoting an unrealistic body image or reinforcing stereotypes about girly interests.
Don’t worry, parents. Several toymakers are on the case.
You want different? How about a Lottie astronomer doll complete with a telescope, tripod and fact sheet about notable women stargazers, or a fossil hunter armed with a magnifying glass, geology hammer and ammonite fossils?
A Lego vet clinic with a mini-doll named Mia has five stars on Amazon. A GoldieBlox skydive action figure, also highly rated on Amazon, invites children to build a parachute pack.
The dolls are part of a movement catering to shoppers’ interest in STEM, encouraging children, particularly girls, to study fields related to science, technology, engineering and math.
Parents, perhaps mindful of their daughters’ futures, are helping to make STEM dolls a “burgeoning category,” said Jackie Breyer, editor-in-chief for gift guide Toy Insider.
The Mighty Makers line from K’nex, for example, includes a construction set in which two small female dolls get to build their dream house from the ground up. The I am Elemental line of female action figures features a character named Industry who can “repair anything that is broken.” iBesties is a doll line promoting entrepreneurship.
“Doll lines that teach kids science, technology, engineering and math principles are doing extremely well at retail,” Breyer said.
BMO Capital Markets, in an October toy industry report, called STEM toys one of five “new and emerging trends.”
But STEM dolls, specifically, might be one of the key ways that young girls get exposed to those subjects.
Research announced last summer by Purdue University found that engineering or building toys are purchased for boys twice as often as girls.
Retailers have been receptive to carrying STEM toys, including dolls.
Toys R Us named Project Mc2 dolls, who are both chic dressers and knowledgeable about science and technology, to its “holiday hot toy list.” Wal-Mart also carries an assortment both in its stores and online.
Chicago’s Timeless Toys carries Lottie and GoldieBlox lines. Besides encouraging girls to open their minds to scientific fields, “Lottie dolls have been very popular because they have a positive body-type image,” store manager Scott Friedland said. “They look like preteens instead of fashion models.” Lottie dolls wear bomber jackets, long-sleeve T-shirts, sturdy brown boots, cargo shorts and baseball caps. They don’t wear makeup, jewelry or high heels.
Timeless Toys has sold seven times as many STEM dolls this year as it did last year, Friedland said. GoldieBlox is the top-selling doll in the store.
Among the gifts that Caroline Dickinson, 6, might find under the tree this Christmas are Project Mc2 dolls. Each comes “with a science experiment that will keep Caroline engaged throughout Christmas break and beyond, we hope,” said her dad, Dorian Dickinson.
Caroline’s favorite doll now is her American Girl doll _ also named Caroline, whose attributes include bravery.
“While being brave is a great attribute for our Caroline to grow up with, we usually lean toward STEM-based toys and even dolls for Caroline,” Dickinson said. One recent morning, Caroline asked if American Girl had a doctor outfit for her doll. (It doesn’t.) The first-grader has also improvised by adding, say, a toy construction helmet to the doll.
“Caroline, the daughter, gets frustrated and outspoken when she can’t find things like a doctor’s coat, construction hat and tools for her female dolls,” Dickinson said.
He and his wife, Sarah, are co-partners in Chicago-based marketing firm Great River Creative. Caroline’s favorite subject is math, and she shows interest in a Great River client who wants to convert cactus waste into energy. Dickinson attributes at least part of her curious nature to STEM toys. Caroline also wants a Barbie veterinarian doll to complement her Barbie pediatrician doll.
“Finding STEM-based toys is becoming a bit easier,” Dickinson said. “We’re also big fans of GoldieBlox and Legos.”
But hold it, folks. Where dolls are concerned, non-STEM Barbie still rules, according to online shopping tracker Adobe. On Cyber Monday, for example, the five top-selling toys included the pink Barbie Dream House and Shopkins dolls, whose tagline is “Once you shop, you can’t stop.”
“While traditional dolls like American Girl and Barbie Dream House remain one of the most popular items, Shopkins and Doc McStuffins dolls were also popular,” said Jay Hanson, eBay merchandising vice president. Doc McStuffins is a female veterinarian. Hanson is also seeing “a lot of buzz” on such STEM toys as Meccanoids and Mc2 dolls.
Veronica Arreola, who is assistant director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Research on Women and Gender and who helps direct its Women in Science and Engineering program, believes it’s important for girls to have pop culture role models and dolls to imagine themselves in a STEM career. But she acknowledges that supply and demand for STEM dolls haven’t reached a critical mass.
“There’s a desire for something like this in the market, but they haven’t caught on enough to change the market,” she said. “But there’s a growing sentiment that our girls need something different.”
Chicago mom Terrand Bashua has her eye on GoldieBlox, which was launched in 2012 on Kickstarter. The brand says its skydiving and ziplining girl action figures help teach spatial skills, engineering principles and problem solving.
“Love the concept,” Bashua tweeted to GoldieBlox earlier this year. “Been looking for math/science kits for my 3-year-old. Seems a little young for you now, but I’ll keep watching you.”
Bashua recently told the Chicago Tribune that she knows that “girls are under-represented in STEM fields, especially African-American girls, and we want to make sure she has the confidence, resources and support to go into any field.”
“We were happy to see that doll,” the co-founder of startup SpaceHQ said of the GoldieBlox Ruby Rails Skydive Action Figure.
Products made by Chicago-based North American Bear include stuffed dolls.
“STEM for girls is definitely a trend we’re watching,” said Vice President Melissa Bullock. “Right now, though, the STEM initiative is really targeted at K-12, and our target age for soft dolls is slightly younger, more toddler and preschool under age 6,” Bullock said. “We focus more on healthy activities that this younger set engages in, like ballet and gymnastics and early reading skills like storytelling with our fairy tale-themed dolls.”
For now, STEM dolls are largely a vinyl-doll category aimed at older children, “but as things progress it is certainly something we want to do,” Bullock said. North American Bear once had a pet-vet doll, but it was discontinued when some materials became unavailable.
Bullock says she has a “10-year-old at home who is obsessed with Project Mc2 on Netflix.” Project Mc2 includes STEM dolls as well as TV shows in which the teens use science and tech skills.
She adds that any toy can be used to teach early STEM skills, including lining up playthings to be counted or sorted.
Todd Mielcarz said his 10-year-old daughter has an assortment of Barbie, Monster High and American Girl dolls, and also has played with science kits.
“She used to be all about princess but has moved away from that and plays with the dolls in more of everyday-type scenarios,” said the co-host of parenting podcast Paternity Test. “We’ve seen commercials for the Project Mc2 dolls, but she hasn’t shown much interest” in that line.
Mielcarz said that, while he supports efforts to make intelligence the primary attribute of female dolls, some of the STEM dolls’ body types, with their oversized eyes and heads and stick legs, look dysmorphic.
Still, “I would certainly look toward a STEM-type doll before a Barbie doll in the future,” Mielcarz said.
Monster High does have a “Mad Science Doll Set” that includes two dolls in high heels, lab coats, safety goggles and test tubes.
Lottie dolls were launched in 2012. Robot Girl Lottie, who wants to build a robot from recycled materials for her school’s science fair, was the brainchild of a girl from Sioux Falls, S.D., and was developed in consultation with a female author of a robotics book.
Ian Harkin, managing director of Arklu, which owns the Lottie line, said fossil-hunter and astronomer dolls were also suggested by girls. Arklu worked with female paleontologists, archaeologists, geologists and astronomers to ensure the products were scientifically accurate.
Both Fossil Hunter and Stargazer are “performing extremely well,” Harkin said. Both dolls were recently sold out on Lottie.com.
“We’re a small, self-funded business,” Harkin said. “Everything we have done to date has been through word of mouth, which has helped us sell over 300,000 dolls to date.”