Six years old.
Recent scholarship shows that’s the average age that girls stop thinking they can be and do anything, when they become less likely than boys to see themselves as “really, really smart.”
This phenomenon is called the Dream Gap. It rears its ugly head in myriad ways for girls and women around the world—from being unable to identify as very intelligent to being far less likely to picture their future selves as scientists, engineers or working in any STEM career role. This result persists even when girls perform just as well as boys on science and math tests. The erosion in their self-confidence is well underway at six, and they cannot imagine the possibility of another story.
The Dream Gap is a crisis not only because it robs girls of the ability to value themselves in an essential context. Dreaming is the key to a future in which more than 80 percent of jobs are STEM-related, and so we are all robbed. Simply put, dreaming, if we define that term as imagining new possibilities, exploring new worlds and thinking new thoughts, is what makes innovation and new breakthroughs possible.
How do we keep our girls dreaming? One answer is encouraging the right kind of play. Play, after all, is purposeful dreaming.
At Mattel, we call this the potential of play, and we believe in it deeply. The kind of play that can foster boundless wonder and help us close the Dream Gap is:
- open-ended, unstructured play that fosters divergent thinking and innovation
- independent exploration
- personalized, adaptive learning-through-play opportunities
- collaborative play
- engaging play that teaches and supports key skills, such as coding as a 21st century literacy
The best kind of play can help our children grow the brainpower and insights that the future requires. It can help them imagine themselves as scientists, athletes, software developers, dentists, mathematicians, auto mechanics, inventors or firefighters.
We must intervene in their earliest years—well before they are six—to reinforce the belief that they are capable of anything, and play is where we should start. Girls should be able to play at coding, or tinkering, or building, or baking, or taking care of a baby doll, or all of these (and by the way, so should boys). They should get the chance to imagine themselves in any role before it’s too late.
The richest kind of play—through toys, games and experiences—has the power to help us close the Dream Gap. We should seize this opportunity to harness it.