The very first blog post I ever wrote was about the Mindware catalog's spa science kit and its not-so-tacit message to little girls. As I go around the country giving talks I now show a series of pictures from similar "science kits for girls" (which are flooding the market) to illustrate how they're designed less to teach interest in that subject than to cultivate an obsession with beauty and consumerism. Janet Stemwedel at Scientific American just wrote a great blog post about this. She talks, for instance, about this--yet another "Spa Science" kit:
...the packaging here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work. Does a ten-year-old need an oatmeal mask? (If so, why only ten-year-old girls? Do not ten-year-old boys have pores and sebaceous glands?)
...Maybe the Barbie-licious artwork is intended to convey that even very “girly” girls can find some element of science that is important to their concerns, but it seems also to convey that being overtly feminine is a concern that all girls have (or ought to have) — and, that such “girly” girls couldn’t possibly take an interest in science except as a way to cultivate their femininity
There are so many of these kits on the market today. This one, for instance:
And this one:
And this one:
The company Wild Science is kind enough to break their products down on "boys" and "girls" pages, just for those of us who may not be able to determine who is supposed to get the "perfume science" kit and who is supposed to get the (I kid you not) "physics and chemistry" kit. Please. Click on the links. You have got to check them out. Go ahead. Compare and contrast. I'll wait.
Are you back? Are your teeth still in your head? I especially love that boys get "chemistry and physics" and girls get "perfect perfume lab."
Oh, wait--Wild Science ALSO has a whole section called "cosmetic science" featuring a "Pampering Boutique" for girls ages 8+ that "puts all the 'good' ingredients back in the skin after a tiresome day at school." Bonus points for reinforcing alienation from education (and that "pretty" and "smart" are incompatible!!)
Other "cosmetic science" products? Clay Mask Lab; Cleansing Boutqiue; Cosmetic Cream Lab; Enhancing Boutique (perhaps experiments involving botox?); Purifying Boutique and Shampoo Factory.
It's not just science kits, either. Craft kits, which once promoted art or, I don't know, at least CRAFT have also become focused solely on appearance. Faber-Castell, a venerable, 250 year old art supply company, owns Creativity for Kids whose craft kits for girls include the following:
There are so many of these cosmetic-fashion-jewelry craft kits I could go on forever. Look 'em up.
So imagine, for a moment: you're in third grade and you wake up on Christmas morning or light the Channukah candles on consecutive nights and as a budding scientist you get a perfume science kit. And then you open the next gift and because you're interested in art you get a fashion angels project runway kit. And then because you do love dolls you get Frankie Stein from Monster High. What is the larger message those gifts are giving? According to Stemwedel:
The message seems to be, “Look, there’s a bit of science that will interest even you. (And go put on some lipstick!)” Heaven knows, we couldn’t even get girls interested in building Rube Goldberg machines, or launching water-rockets, or studying the growth of plants or the behaviors of animals, or blowing stuff up … except, these are just the sort of things that the girls I know would want to do, even the pretty pink princesses.
She suggests if your little girl--or boy--is into science, you should check out the kids pages on the American Chemical Society site. There you will find hand-on activities (using stuff you probably have around the house) such as nine fun experiments with soap and detergent. And here's a list of books and books and books full of science experiments that any child would love.