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legos

A poster from a website project on inclusiveness in Legos sets by students at Shorewood Hills Elementary School in Madison.

Students at Madison's Shorewood Hills Elementary School are sending a message to the people who make the phenomenally popular Lego toy bricks: Drop the stereotypes. Be more inclusive.

The students, with the help of teacher Michele Hatchell, constructed a website to tell the world what they found out about Legos.

The website features data students collected about stereotypes reflected in the mini-figures and settings of various Lego building sets, letters to the toy maker, posters and photos of themselves reenacting a magazine ad from 1981.

The kids have named their project “What it is is beautiful,” after the tag line of the old print ad that shows a red-haired little girl with the fantastical creation she made from “Universal Building Set.”

Three decades later the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at Shorewood Hills Elementary are not only sensitive to gender stereotyping in media, they also are aware “that you can get a message out in the world,” Hatchell said Friday, the day after the website went live.

“They are excited that people are seeing their website. They are asking their parents to share it out,” she said. And they believe that their message has the power to persuade, Hatchell said. “They are expecting that things will change.”

Hatchell, an art and social studies teacher, said the project began with a look at marketing to children that is part of the school’s focus on embracing family diversity, creating a gender inclusive environment and ending bullying by teaching ally behavior.

Shorewood Hills won an award this year from two national organizations for its work in creating a welcoming environment. The school — which draws from UW-Madison’s Eagle Heights housing, home to many international students and instructors and their families — has students who speak 44 different languages, Hatchell said.

Led by their own curiosity, students logged characteristics of the figurines in building sets, mocked up gender-inclusive and multi-cultural alternatives and even tracked down the child model featured in the 1981 advertisement.

They found gender stereotypes perpetuated in the roles assigned figures and an absence of multi-cultural characters, Hatchell said. Studying Lego ads through the years showed how marketing grew to be targeted almost exclusively to boys, until the recent introduction of a “friends” series with feminine packaging and characters, she said.

Students wrote to the CEO of the Denmark-based Lego Group telling him what they found, and suggesting ways the company can improve its products:

“I think you should stop assuming boys like blowing things up and girls like pink. I’m a boy, and personally I like pink,” wrote one student.

Another complained that the Lego girl figurines only do “girly” stuff, asking, “Why can’t they save the world like boys? Or save a cat from a tree or even go to the moon?”

“I like Legos but I think it should have more skin colors,” wrote another student. “Most Lego mini-figures have really yellow heads and hands and that is hurtful to me because I am Asian and I don’t have yellow skin.”

“Think of how sales would go up if there were more girls,” advised one girl. “Believe me girls like Lego. I think it’s pretty fun.”

“When I play my games, I think it is more realistic to have African-Americans in them,” wrote a student who added the only such figure to be found in Legos is an alien from the Star Wars set.

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“Ditch the ‘Friends’ series. It’s too creepy. I mean everything is either pink or purple and all the buildings are salons or cafes,” another advised.

“I am only telling you this because I like Legos. Your friend, A kid from Shorewood School,” one student signed off.

Hatchell said the students took care to mention something positive in their letters because there is much about the toy they like.

“Kids love Legos, as do I,” she said. “They are amazing educational tools for engineering skills, math skills.”

A lot of toy companies could have been selected for critique for gender-stereotype marketing, Hatchell said. “We’ve been using Legos as an example.”

She said she sent a link to the project website to the company Thursday through its customer service link, but hasn’t heard back yet.

“This project is lovely because it gives the kids a voice as they talk about this and communicate via art, writing and research. They have learned so much and will learn by being teachers, too, as people look at the site,” Hatchell said.

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