Friday, January 29, 2016

Barbie and LEGO both make some changes -- for the better.

In my book Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics, I use both LEGO and Barbie as examples of toys that kids everywhere know and play with. Some of the classroom strategies I use are about designing toys to represent different time periods, historic movements, and world cultures. Up until this week, there have been a lot of kids who haven't been able to see themselves in those toys.

At the Nuremberg Toy Fair, LEGO unveiled the toys that would be coming in summer 2016. It included the normal mix of Superheroes and Star Wars and City sets. One of the City sets is a relatively simple one, Fun in the Park. 15 minifigures, in a 50/50 ratio of men to women (another area of progress) in a park setting, with benches, a hot dog cart, and a small merry-go-round. There's a brand new baby piece, which is as adorable as you'd expect -- but even more astounding is LEGO's first wheelchair. It's a piece that I've wanted them to make for years, and there have been online campaigns to get one made. Their rationale for not making one before now is "well, it's LEGO, you can make your own if you really want one." And yet they've made bikes and furniture dollies and wheelbarrows and other small wheeled conveyances (each of which could be cobbled together with other LEGO bricks) -- the wheelchair is long overdue. I like it because it's another way that kids (all kids) can put themselves into a LEGO scene, and have them imagine play that is more genuine to their real experiences.

Last summer I broke my foot. The day before a trip to California that included visiting LEGOLAND. I was in a rented wheelchair all that day. I say that not to equate that single day with a long-term or permanent disability, but that I recognized for the first time the frustrations of being in a world where everyone else was walking, and I was not. I consider myself thoughtful and aware of people's diverse needs...but experiencing it firsthand for a day made me think about it differently. The world that children with different abilities need to learn to navigate growing up is challenging enough. I'm glad LEGO is finally finding a way to acknowledge that.

The other big piece of news is that Mattel, after 57 years of having a single body type for their flagship Barbie doll, is adding three more body types. So there will be the Classic Barbie, but also "petite," "tall," and "curvy" Barbies. They're also adding additional skin tones, hair textures and colors. It's big enough news that it's TIME Magazine's cover story this week. Mattel has been criticized for decades about the impossible standards of beauty that they put in front of children; this is a step towards acknowledging that and (like LEGO) showing children a more diverse world, and a world they can see themselves in more easily. For Mattel it may be more to try to boost sliding sales than out of altruism, but a corporate move that benefits children is still okay in my book. Like, literally my book. Play Like a PIRATE. Available now.