"These are your presents, and they are tools, not toys." With these words, Father Christmas hands the Pevensie children the weapons with which they will battle evil in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.
The very best toys are indeed tools. Children use them to craft the adults they will become. Here's an article from three years ago that illustrates how favoring boys over girls with a particular type of toy/tool (computers) led directly to the "gender gap" among coders that developed in the mid-1980's.
A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.
Early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys. ... This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution.
In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.
This was a big deal when those kids got to college. As personal computers became more common, computer science professors increasingly assumed that their students had grown up playing with computers at home.
The girls had fallen behind before they even set foot on campus.
"I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now,' " she recalls. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.' "
Nor is the phenomenon limited to computing. Upon taking her first course in optical engineering at the University of Rochester, our daughter found herself at the head of the class in the mathematics, but woefully behind her male classmates when it came to practical electronics. Our other daughter marvelled at her husband's facility with bicycle repair ... and his total lack of fear when tackling a new matter of practical handiwork. He had grown up working on such projects.
Not all boys do, but there's definitely a gender bias, perhaps because fathers are more likely to teach such work to their sons. Probably, too, girls are more susceptible to the fear of doing something wrong: it has long been known that when something goes wrong, women are likely to blame themselves, while men generally assign responsibility to the inanimate object. "I'm so stupid; I broke the dish" versus "The stupid dish slipped and broke."
Whatever the reasons, what is perfectly clear is that how our children play shapes their futures. By no means am I advocating that parents should take still further control over their children's "free" time, as if preschool, after-school activities, computer camps, and travel soccer weren't enough of an intrusion. But perhaps every family's education budget should include plenty of toys that are actually high-quality tools—from art equipment and musical instruments to construction tools and electronics.
Everyone has an education category in the family budget, right? If not, you should; in the meantime, clue in the grandparents when they ask for gift suggestions.
Perhaps even more important than useful tool/toys would be to give our children the gift of freedom from the fear of making a mistake. Let them "waste" the expensive paints and paper; be prepared to see many repair jobs end with parts all over the floor before they learn to put anything back together; let them know by word and your example that making mistakes is an important part of learning. Our young neighbor became the go-to computer resource for our school district well before he graduated, because in middle school he had fearlessly crashed his home computer system over and over again, turning repeatedly to my husband for rescue—until he surpassed his teacher.
I wish I had been better at this when our children were young. With age comes wisdom, and what we lack in opportunity to implement our theories, we gain in opportunities to promote them.