What toys teach

My husband works in an elementary school, and he's forever going to meetings and conferences about how to get more children -- and, specifically, girls -- interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

There are noted speakers on the subject, PowerPoint presentations galore, sobering statistics and always the comparisons with students in other countries. Through it all, there is the hand-wringing. How -- how??? -- can we get students engaged with STEM? While we're at it, how can we get more girls interested in STEM career paths?

In a local McDonald's last week, my husband kind of figured it all out.

As he was ordering a Happy Meal for Nora (don't look at me like that -- it's a RARE treat, OK?), he eyeballed the toys in a display case. For boys: A Hot Wheels truck to which a kid could add stickers according to a diagram and whose wheels shifted up and down when you pushed in the roof. For girls: A plastic shoe that could be clipped to a backpack.

See the difference?

The boy toy invites interactivity. It reinforces a skill (following a diagram) and challenges the user to figure out how it works. (There were no instructions mentioning that pushing on the roof would make the wheels change levels -- it just had to be discovered on its own.)

The girl toy? Well, it just kind of sits there. There's nothing to be figured out, nothing to be learned. It's decorative. Yeehaw.

So my husband, probably to the deep confusion of the cashier who was looking at him holding a three-year-old with a pink shirt and bows in her hair, requested the boy toy. And Nora LOVED that truck. She's been playing with it for days, and she's constantly figuring out new things to do with it. I'm not sure that truck alone will make her strive to be an engineer one day (but I can hope, right?), but I *am* pretty certain that that dumb clip-on shoe wasn't going to do much for her.

I've got nothing against dolls (except creepy ones) and other traditional girl toys -- Nora adores her little pink and purple tea set, and that's OK with me. But I do want to make an effort to give her toys that are TOYS, items that stimulate her imagination and maybe sneakily teach her something along the way.

I also want to her to stop stealing my french fries when we treat ourselves to fast food, but that's a whole 'nother battle.

RELATED: This comic, from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, sums it up nicely, don't you think?