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Toymakers Look to Real Life to Inspire Design

Toy makers are developing products that adhere less to traditional perceptions of child’s play and reflect today’s reality.

Lego’s newest minifigures include a stay-at-home dad (pushing a baby in a carriage), a white-jacketed female scientist (pocket protector included) and a wheelchair-bound fellow. Lego’s boxy little characters exemplify how the toymaker is aspiring to stay in tune with the real world.

Stay-at-home dads are no longer an anomaly. They comprised 16% of all parents by 2012, versus only 10% in 1989, according to a Pew Research Center study. And 21% of dads see their primary job as caring for their homes or families, while 23% say it’s a function of not being able to find work; illness or disability accounts for 35% of fathers that stay home.

Lego’s president, Soren Torp Laursen, told Fortune magazine the minifigures were not created in response to pressure from parents.

The scientist minifigure was part of an all-female scientist series announced by Lego not long after a Change.org petition advocating for minifigures that represent women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The petition received more than 42,000 supporters. A new building set series featuring women in STEM jobs had been one of the entries in Lego’s public building set design competition.

Lego’s not the only toymaker responding to social trends. Mattel’s Barbie has a scientist doll with a white lab coat and stethoscope, along with an eye doctor (with a vision chart), a veterinarian (with animal X-rays) and entrepreneur (along with tablet and briefcase) – and plans to add a game developer doll to its Careers line.

A New York Times article reported that Mattel, Barbie’s manufacturer, has seen sales decline in recent years as Barbie struggled to maintain relevance. Mattel also announced plans to make Barbie available in three new sizes: curvy, petite and tall. Although Mattel manufactures Barbie in a variety of ethnicities, the toymaker has endured criticism for creating unrealistic body image expectations among little girls.

One 2006 study published in Developmental Psychology suggested that “early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.

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