Co.Design

A Dollhouse Designed To Get Girls Excited About Tech

Roominate was designed by three female geeks to inspire the next generation of STEM-savvy girls.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or "STEM," as these fields are collectively called nowadays) are overcrowded with dudes. Why are these fields so gender-imbalanced? Does it have to do with girls’ innate preferences, or is it a kind of learned avoidance that starts in childhood? The creators of Roominate, an educational toy designed to get girls interested in STEM subjects, are living proof that having a pair of X chromosomes is no barrier to success in science and engineering. Alice Brooks, Jennifer Kessler, and Bettina Chen studied mechanical engineering, neuroscience, and electrical engineering at some of the best universities in the world, and with Roominate, they hope to give young girls a way to encounter geeky creativity as early as possible.

Roominate is essentially a classic "girl" toy—a dollhouse—updated with hacker appeal. Instead of a prefab cottage with 1950s decor, Roominate is "a stackable, attachable, and customizable miniature room with working circuits that you build yourself." A girl can build out the room to tell whatever imaginative story she likes, and then connect up circuits and other interactive elements to bring it to life. Take that, American Girl Store!

But wait a minute: Isn’t a dollhouse jammed with wires just another "gendered" toy retrofitted with some techy stuff? Lego Mindstorms already exist, and offer a lot of the same educational play experiences—so why should girls need something like Roominate? "We started with a toy that girls already love, and added educational components that make the toy even more engaging," Alice Brooks tells Co.Design. "During our testing, we asked parents about the educational toys that they had previously purchased for their daughters. Their most common response was that educational toys are more often marketed to boys. We think girls should have the same access."

As the geeky dad of a 10-month-old daughter, I find this non-judgmental attitude refreshing. Brooks, Kessler, and Chen aren’t trying to turn girls into boys in order to get them interested in STEM subjects; Roominate is a toy designed to meet girls where they already are, using "common play patterns that we know girls love," as the Kickstarter page states. "We loved our dolls, stuffed animals, and Barbies growing up," Brooks tells Co.Design. "But, we also love our Legos, Lincoln Logs, Mastermind, and Chess. With Roominate, we are showing girls that they can like both. Everything is an option."

Everything is an option: Isn’t that how any educational toy should make a kid feel, regardless of their gender? Roominate may be designed for girls first, but there’s nothing about it that couldn’t appeal to boys as well. What if a son and daughter played with Roominate and Lego Mindstorms together, mixing and matching them and sharing and creating, without any thought of "what belongs where" on the gender spectrum? If toys like Roominate can help make that kind of play experience more common, maybe in the future we won’t even need clunky acronyms like STEM anymore. To our kids, it’ll all just be creating, thinking, connecting, and making.

[Read more about Roominate.]

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5 Comments

  • J. A. Beck

    As a science loving female, I found it difficult (in the 1950s) to have the type of playthings that appealed to me without buying "boys" toys. I was offered dolls, a pink train, a nurses kit and child size high heals. What I wanted was cap guns, trucks, and a dog. What I got (I had awesome understanding parents) was an erector set, a black train, trucks that my dolls rode in, a doctor kit, and a doll house that I furnished with my hand made erector set furniture. My own daughter was given the freedom to choose her playthings and now my grandsons don't have to worry about a mom or grandma who scream at worms. Heck no! we show those boys how to put the worms on fishhooks. Toys should be gender neutral. Everyone should be encouraged to explore their world.

  • Terri Griffith

    Version Two could let people design their own kit, which is then laser cut and shipped (Shapeways for Dolls houses?) Love the circuit angle.

  • Vandusha

    I grew up with a working mother who was a draughtsman when there was much prejudice in her field. I never had borders to creativity. When I could use glue a matt knife and cardboard from cereal boxes. I used scraps of fabric paper from magazines and created my own world as we had no money for toys. It was the most fun I ever had to create rooms any way I wanted in miniature. Ideas were taken from books and home magazines. When my sons were old enough we created rooms and stages.
    I think this is a great toy for both girls and boys and can open up a whole venue.

  • Phillip Cameron

    im sorry i hope this is just a prototype for the final thing because those burnt laser cut edges look super dingy, as well as those craft cut decorations... not a bad idea (though not quite original) but i wouldn't trust cash to someone incapable of refining the prototype.

  • Lyndsay

    The link takes us to a Kickstarter page to raise funds for the business development. I'm sure the funds would pay for a complete model build used for professional manufacturing and packaging.  Just out of curiosity, what makes you say its not very original? Are there other doll houses like this?