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Early construction play may be important for developing foundational skills relevant for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). LEGO play is associated with spatial skill development (e.g., Ness & Farenga, 2007), a cognitive skillset especially important for STEM (e.g., Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009) and in which females perform lower on average than do males (Linn & Peterson, 1985). LEGOs and other construction toys are marketed primarily to boys (Sweet, 2014), and boys report playing with LEGO more than girls do (Fulcher & Hayes, 2017). Differential play experience may account, in part, for girls’ lag in spatial skill. Another potential contributing force is how adults talk to children about building. Recent research shows that mothers speak differently to sons versus to daughters about the same STEM toy (Coyle & Liben, in press).
In Study 1, 123 college students (63 men, 60 women, mean age=19.7 years) were instructed to describe how to build a LEGO Christmas tree and were audio recorded. They were told they were instructing (A) Boys Scouts, (B) Girl Scouts, or (C) a mixed gender martial arts class (random assignment). These recordings were then used in Study 2 (adults, N=118, 61 men, 57 women, mean age=19.7 years) and 3 (children, N=100, 50 boys, 50 girls), in which learners were randomly assigned to hear one of the Study 1 recordings, counterbalancing for teacher and learner gender and condition. Learners attempted to build the LEGO tree along with the audio instructions. They then reflected on their own performance and assessed the quality of the teacher.
As expected, men in Study 2 reported playing more frequently with LEGO as children than did women, F(1,115)=5.57, p=.02. Although no effect of condition (Boy Scouts vs. Girl Scouts vs. martial arts) was found on learner LEGO performance, learner gender affected how well learners perceived they performed, F(1,102)=5.75, p=.02. Men perceived that they did better on the task (M=4.02, SD=1.11) than did women (M=3.47, SD=1.15).
Consistent with Study 2, boys in Study 3 reported more LEGO play experience than did girls, F(1,98)=8.02, p=.006. There was no observed main effect of instructional condition on LEGO performance. Rather, LEGO performance was affected by child age in interaction with child gender, F(1,94)=6.09, p=.015. Younger (6- to 8-year-olds) boys performed better (M=3.00, SD=1.21) than did younger girls (M=2.21, SD=1.25), whereas there was no significant gender difference in performance among older children (9- to 12-year-olds; M=3.52, SD=1.35). Interestingly, LEGO experience did not predict task performance for either boys (r=.11) or girls (r=.23).
Data analysis for this project is on-going. Other coding of interest includes the frequency of spatial words in teacher instructions and their effect on learner task performance. Understanding the subtle processes operating in early spatial play may shed light on the foundations of the STEM gender gap.