You Had Me at LEGO

June 15, 2012

LEGO Friends Heartlake Vet

“Is that for me? Cool!”

That was the response from my 8-year-old after I brought home the LEGO Friends Heartlake Vet set I won in an office raffle. There were no comments about the pastel colors, flowers, butterflies, stars, hearts, or even the characters on the box. The more than 300 pieces quickly joined hundreds of their little plastic friends that were already littering my dining room table. The Friends line, which consists of 23 sets that follow the story of five tweens living in make-believe Heartlake City, is targeted at girls ages 6–12. My child is a boy.

In contrast to his reaction, the launch of LEGO Friends last December was met with skepticism, disappointment, and frustration  as a gender-based marketing ploy. LEGOs, like many other construction-based toys that are marketed to boys, are widely recognized as foundational tools for developing spatial skills and the ability to mentally construct three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional images. Spatial visualization is important to later success in engineering and other scientific fields. While boys tend to outperform girls in cognitive tests of visual and spatial abilities as early as preschool, our 2010 research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics points out that girls’ success can be cultivated with practice and simple training.

Human Minifigures LEGO Friends Heartlake Vet

This is where LEGO Friends misses the mark. Its simplified construction process, along with its emphasis on the themes of caregiving, playing dress-up, shopping, baking, and other stereotypically girly activities dumbs down the accomplishment of following instructions to master a task. Even the human minifigures in the Friends set are more distinguished by feminine physical appearance — they’re taller, curvier, and more fashionable and doll-like than traditional LEGO characters — than they are by any life or career potential.

The initial thrill of any new LEGO set for my son has always come from putting it together by himself. The afterglow of that achievement generally wears thin within a few weeks, though, and then those same sets mesh into a hodgepodge of other creations. In this case, the veterinary clinic has since been destroyed by a rampaging Hulk, Thor, and other Marvel Avengers in an epic battle against the super villain Loki.

My son’s creativity and enjoyment were not restricted by the gender limitations of the product. And after the millions of dollars that were already spent to market and sell these toys, I’ll assume that LEGO Friends aren’t going away any time soon. I just hope that moving forward, Heartlake City lives up to what LEGOs for girls can really be.

By:   |   June 15, 2012


  1. […] for the company this year in a way that may surprise you: She is LEGO’s first female scientist character. With the scientist minifigure set, girls can see themselves as future scientists just like this […]

  2. Jenna says:

    I have two daughters who are now 20 & 22, (so we had Legos in the early 90’s) and they both played endlessly with Legos, from the Duplo stage (3-4 y/o) on up, until they were going into Jr High. Our older daughter was SO proud of the ferris wheel she built, that it collected dust before she would take it down. This was before “STEM” was an acronym in the schools; yet they both also became GATE & high school AP class kids – and now both are in Science and Math- oriented college majors.
    Segregation by color is limiting in SO many facets of life! And maybe people just need to allow children to be exposed to a variety of play experiences – which is so sadly limited by the “play-date” and “helicopter” parenting.
    Our girls didn’t need pink and purple-colored – or curvy-shaped figures in order to be ‘enticed’ into playing with Legos. And they played with trucks and cars and balls, as well as blocks and dolls and dress-up stuff.
    They also both sat on the kitchen counter and helped measure, mix and pour; as well as helping mom build decks and fences and fix things. We just didn’t divide things into boys vs girls toys!! Maybe that’s more the clue than anything else…..
    I think it has to do with the exposure children get to a variety of ways the world works and the messages communicated that they ARE capable of doing anything they are interested in doing. It’s up to the parents to provide the wide exposure to life rather than constrain things to pink and purple, or black and blue.

  3. LegoMyMamma says:

    Friends construction is not ‘dumbed-down’ nor ‘simplified’ in any way. The truth is they are actually *progressive* with the Modular design and build process. This is the same process used in more complex sets, such as the Town Hall. All the Modular sets come with loose bricks bagged according to building steps.
    Friends gets bricks in the hands of girls who would otherwise not chose a LEGO set! This way, they too can benefit from spatial and STEM skills via: building, properly following instructions, problem-solving, imagining new ways to connect bricks, and (like your son) using these bricks in combination with *any* other LEGO bricks to build *anything* she can imagine!
    It’s amazing so many people misunderstand that Friends actually *increases* the number of girls building their own play sets!! Primarily aimed at girls age 5-12, this is how they play: open, build, play, build, play, re-build. This is merely the gateway to more building, possibly even robotics, which incorporates STEM skills. *Not* having a line like Friends to encourage girls whose interests are similar, to actually build while they play, is the true travesty and injustice to girls. Why shouldn’t *all* girls have options for play that builds their life skills?

  4. Marcia Weissman says:

    I agree with your assessment of this type of toy and the marketing that accompanies it. But parents, teachers, and other adults have to take some responsibility too, and they can do as you did and ignore the gender-assignment. You gave your son the Heartlake Vet set along with the other legos he has. Parents of girls can give them the same mix – they can build helicopters and skyscrapers while also fantasizing about being a vet (which used to be a male stereotype). And of course, if products are irredeemably obnoxius, we can just refuse to buy them.

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.