Debbie Sterling on the Future of Play

Debbie Sterling

Debbie Sterling, CEO and Co-founder of GoldieBlox, is redefining girlhood through play. Her company designs gender bending toys that inspire young girls to participate in engineering and problem solving activities. For Debbie, toys are extremely influential in determining the world’s future leaders, builders, and engineers, and she hopes to inspire girls to get involved in STEM professions by (literally) giving them building blocks that encourage confidence in these spaces. For Debbie, the future is the product of play; how toys are designed and innovated over the coming years will determine a new future for women in the workforce.

There seem to be two schools of thought in the future of play. One speaks to the notion of play becoming more “gender neutral,” while the other pushes for the redesign of toys that are traditionally for one gender to be more inclusive of the other gender’s needs. Which school of thought, if any, do you personally subscribe to?

Personally, I believe in pushing for the redesign of toys to be more inclusive. When I first started doing research into gender differences, I found that girls develop their verbal skills quickly and at a young age. They have a lot of confidence around reading and a strong preference for play that involves storytelling and characters. Other construction toys tell kids “what” to build with an instruction manual. GoldieBlox gives the “why,” making the building challenges solve problems that help Goldie’s friends. This is the context that’s been missing and the key to getting girls engaged in building.

What is the natural progression of retail layouts that target children? Can you imagine a future in which retailers move beyond the “pink aisle?” How do you imagine the toy store of the future?

If you visit your local toy store, you’ll see that the boys’ aisle is overflowing with building kits that sharpen spatial skills and teach the foundation of engineering, while the “pink aisle” is filled with dolls, teacup sets, and dress-up kits. My hope is that the future won’t be categorized by gender, but by interests, age and brands.

Debbie Sterling

What sorts of societal and/or cultural shifts do you think need to happen in order for girls to aspire to join STEM professions?

I think the key to getting young women involved in STEM is to make engineering fun and exciting. The idea is that if we can reach our girls at a young age and teach them that they have the power to build, they will have the confidence to rise up the chain of command in a male dominated field.

How do you think the experience of girlhood and play will change by 2040?

What I’m trying to do is redefine what girlhood means in terms of play. Today in 2016, if you go into a toy store, it very much looks like girlhood is all about beauty, fashion and being a princess. By 2040, I think the pop culture definition of girlhood will encapsulate all of the multifaceted interests that girls actually have such as athletics, building and STEM.

What role should technology play in toy and playspace environments, if any? Do you plan on integrating more technology (beyond your apps and Bloxtown) into your toys?

Technology should absolutely play a role in toy and playspace environments and it will definitely play an even greater role in GoldieBlox. For example, one of the engineering skills we’re excited to teach is computer science. The best way to teach computer science is on a device, rather than a physical playset as that medium is better suited at scale. For that reason, we have a coding app coming out in the spring. We also have over 100 videos online with building inspiration.

Today, we’re seeing kids sit down with a tablet, watch videos and build along with the videos. We’re continuing to explore ways to integrate tech into the play experience so that kids can have hours and hours of inspiration. The ultimate goal is to provide a place for kids to share their inventions and get inspired by what other kids have created and tech plays a huge role in that.

How might the future of play intersect or change the future of learning and education for young women?

Kids learn when they play. There’s tons of research out there about how play develops motor and spatial skills along with creativity. The problem is that for the past 100 years, the “boy play patterns” have been the ones that develop the motor and spatial skills that are precursors to engineering concepts. Once parents recognize the importance of exposing their kids to those play patterns and building skills early on, which is what GoldieBlox does, we’re going to begin to see girls get that early head start that boys have had for a very long time.

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