We know women have come a long way, but our country's paucity of female engineers and scientists is absolutely puzzling. While we quibble over the cause of this phenomenon, I can get totally behind one perscription to close this gap: Donna Milgram, executive director of the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology, and Science, a group based in Alameda, CA, says, "it's important for girls to play with Legos and chemistry sets and develop spatial relationships and problem-solving skills."
My brother Ian had a chemistry set. Since I was prohibited from entering his room, I never got to play with it (his door had no lock, but the invisible mental gate cast by one's older brother can be surprisingly impenetrable.) Behind his bedroom door, I always envisioned this fantasy lab filled with smoldering beakers and test tubes overflowing with vibrantly colored liquids. He was about 10 at the time, and I was 4. In the following years, Christmas after Christmas, I begged for a set from Santa. One never materialized, but we had some other toys in our house and neighborhood, both hand-me-downs and garage sale bargains, which were really fun. It was only later in life that I realized they were educational to boot.
Legos, Lincoln Logs, and Tinkertoys. I don't know if I alone had this epiphany, but Legos made some great houseboats for Barbie and Skipper to cruise around the kiddie pool delta on. If you lacked the deluxe Mattel Barbie dream home, Lincoln Logs could be stacked high enough for Barbie and Ken's door frame height requirements. And Tinkertoys could at least make a Barbie Teepee or Tent, if all else failed. Could this be how I developed understanding of spatial relationships which helped me in math classes later on? I don't know, but I re-discovered a few more favorites last weekend at Noe Valley's The Ark , a "Quality Toy and Crafts" store on 24th Street in San Francisco.