“I had several small plastic Ponies that I used to play make-believe with my friends. But I had one larger, plush My Little Pony, a bright-green stuffed horse with a vivid pink mane and tail that I played with all by myself. I would sit for hours on my own, braiding and rebraiding its tail. I developed a system for braiding the tail of my Pony that taught me about mathematical concepts– from division to recursion.”
The title of this post is “How My Little Pony Turned a Little Girl into a Computer Scientist” and, while not explicitly addressed, the core point hinges on the seeming-incongruity of a girlish toy and science. Arguments are made in the comments against the title, suggesting that some people are naturally inclined to see mathematical patterns in all aspects of their world and that the My Little Pony was only involved by chance, or posing the alternative title of “Area Girl becomes Computer Scientist despite playing with My Little Pony”.
I’ve posted previously on the differences in even science-focused toys that are marketed to girls, but what I think is really interesting is how adults interpret the ways in which children play with the toys they are given. When we see a ‘girlish’ toy, such as a My Little Pony, we assume that the child playing with it is grooming it, petting it, etc. We assume that a child’s play with a toy carries the same ideas about its use and possibilities that we have, in spite of everything we know about how the cardboard box it came in can be turned into a rocket ship.
It is true that some toys, particularly those clever-looking plastic ones that have so many bells and whistles, provide a limited range of play opportunities. They are specific in what they offer, but in spite of that specificity children can still excel in creative appropriation of their toys through play. They can still surprise us.
The time that this one Computer Scientist was allowed to spend playing in her own way led directly to her understanding of complex mathematical concepts – and to her ability to identify them elsewhere in her world (such as in her cauliflower that evening). However, for most adults watching her during this play she would have appeared to have been simply braiding the pony’s hair, grooming it in a completely familiar, if mildly obsessive, way. No one who hadn’t asked her would have known what was going on in her mind and, even if they had, she might have found it very difficult to explain.