Knees Up Like Unicorns: Free Play, Girls, and Barbie

{Disclosure: This post contains sponsored content from Barbie (TM) }

Gwyneth likes to discuss the human brain. And high school for dogs.

Gwyneth likes to discuss the human brain. And high school for dogs.

What happens inside that magical, precious space of free play? That layer of minutes when a boy or girl exists suspended between toys of the real world and a universe of their creating.

Can you recall what that felt like? Are you still able to picture who you were?

Do you remember sitting on the floor of your room imagining a world in which your stories ruled?

Do you remember when asked to clean up your toys the idea of untangling your pretend world from the real one would bring an audible gasp from your lips?

The power of free play is that a child’s imagination becomes the vehicle that can take her anywhere and craft her into anyone. It is a force that transforms us into anything…….

A neuroscience professor, who explains why a dog’s brain is not as developed as a human brain. (You guys. Because there is no high school for dogs.)

A veterinarian whose standard feline wellness exam comes with the question, “Can your cat fly?”

A soccer coach who encourages her team during drills to get their “Knees up! Like a unicorn!”

A museum tour guide who introduces guests to a one-year-old Triceratops named Peter. Sally, the T-Rex, is one thousand, two million, two hundred and fifty two years old.

A businesswoman who recently closed a deal in New York. And Transylvania.

Barbie asked, “What happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?”

Are you watching who your daughter becomes when she plays? Are you listening to the confidence and conviction in her voice when she lives out these roles? Are you amazed by her unshakable knowledge she can become anything?

Too often people underestimate girls when they play with their dolls. Is it all homemakers, fashion shows, and weddings? I asked some of my PPBB Parents what they have observed while watching their children play with their toys and Barbies, and who their children became during free play:

– Laurie said that thirty years ago when her daughters played with their Barbies they saw the dolls as professionals, like a pediatrician, dentist, ophthalmologist, or teacher. 

– Stephanie, who is fighting Breast Cancer right now with chemo (and fighting like a champ!), said her daughter has a bald Ella doll from Mattel that she treasures. “Sometimes they are kids from school, sometime they are moms, dads and kids and sometimes they are heroes. They are just a platform to show her creativity.”

– Fatima said her nieces love to pretend to produce and host television talk shows. They would also produce and star in movies. “One of their ‘movies’ had the Barbies go camping in the garden and their pet tortoise was a giant from another land. They even used the night mode on the camera to give special effects to their movies.” Fatima also wanted to point this out – “This was in Pakistan by the way, showing that Barbie truly is loved the world over.”

– Jessica shared that her daughter doesn’t play with Barbie often, but when she plays with them at her grandmother’s home, “[T]hey tend to be in grave danger. Last time, they were in a car accident in the middle of nowhere, and the friends had to work together to survive the crisis and save their injured companion.”

– Erin told me her young daughter (who just became a big sister of twins) “makes hers into superheroes a lot. She loves saving the day. She does a lot of taking them on horseback rides and interacting with other imaginary animals. Playing doctor and pretending they are her patients. After the twins were born, they turned into surgeons and delivered a lot of babies. She and my husband like to pose the dolls and play around with stop motion movies.”

– Sarah said her children enjoy all types of dolls, and when they play they “have a pair of shoes that makes them fly, and they take turns wearing them. They do a lot of shouty rescuing of one another. Often waterfalls are involved, and swimming very intensely.”

– Nicole from Australia said that when her daughter played with Barbies “she would make up rescue scenarios. Like for example, fire fighter barbie would have to go in a space ship with astronaut barbie and fly to a planet to collect some secret ingredient then fly back to earth and use that ingredient to rescue Merida and the other barbies from whatever peril they were in… house fire, earthquake, wild animal attack etc.”

– Jennifer from Canada said her daughter’s Barbies “are usually battling zombies or dinosaurs. They’re kinda badass that way.”

– Diana and Emily both said their children “recreate school relationships in a pretend grown up world.”

For over 56 years, Barbie has inspired imaginations and encouraged girls on their journey to self-discovery. From Mermaid to Movie Star, Pet Vet to Police Officer, Fashionista to Fairy Princess, Barbie continues to celebrate the belief that You Can Be Anything


{Disclosure: This post contains sponsored content from Barbie (TM) }


Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009

Find her at You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

Childhood Should Not Be Defined By Limitation: The Powerful Play Experience

Media has a strong influence on us and these days media is everywhere. Media helps craft our norms, leverages our opinions, inspires our wants and desires.

“Media” sounds powerful, doesn’t it? It is. For children, toys are a form of media. Toys can confine children, imposing gender stereotypes and finite versions of play. Childhood was never meant to be defined by limitation.

Toys can be playtime companions, imagination igniting objects, teaching tools, and concept creators for something bigger and better than what originally came out of the box. There are no better experts in the world on creativity than children.

Lightbulb IdeaOpen-ended play means the child does the creating, not the toy. This usually means no batteries. The toy is character free and gender stereotype free, the toy does not tell a story to the child. The only thing that brings that object to life is the creativity swirling inside the child’s mind.

There are no ‘boy toys’. There are no ‘girl toys’. Toys are for the imagination, which by definition should have no restrictions.

Sidewalk chalkOutside Toys:

bubbles, sidewalk chalk,hula hoops, sporting/biking/scooters, water station (cups, buckets, paint brushes, spoons, etc), sprinklers, squirt guns or water shooters, materials to build a fort or tent hideaway, bug collectors/binoculars/magnifying glass, picnic blanket and play dishes

Rainbow of toysInside Toys:

cars, trains and wooden tracks, people figures and dollhouse, dolls and stuffed animals, dress up box, blocks, puzzles, magnets, dominoes, art supplies, science experiments, materials to build a fort or tent hideaway, Play Doh and clay,  board games, area to set up a play school/restaurant/bank/hotel/business/hospital

Some other play ideas we love:

Idea Factory:  The power of “tinkering” = have boxes of various sizes, washed out food containers, art scraps, fasteners, tape, crayons and markers so kids can build anything they want. (The Maker Movement is the tech side of this idea.)

Turn a laundry basket or large cardboard box in anything.

Self Portrait: Have kiddo trace their hands and feet, and then fill in this unique style of self portrait, adding in special interesting or word clouds of things important to them.

Lemonade Stand: This is a busy project more than play, excellent for bigger kids and offers so many opportunities for learning business skills. There is planning, organization, money management, promotion, and customer service skills that will be gained from the experience. (Not to mention the art of upselling, as in charging your neighbors an extra fifty cents to play hop scotch after they finish their lemonade.)

What are some creative ways that your children play and discover? 



MAW Profile PicMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009

Find her at You can read her blog at: or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).

Everything found in the Nothing of Dog Days

My five year old is sitting on the couch, staring into space, making a dripping noise with his mouth and kicking his foot back and forth. He has been doing this for nearly twenty minutes. I have no desire to find him something to do, call over a friend for him, nor turn on a movie. Despite the myriad educational toys, puzzles, science kits, art supplies and books laying about, I will not be getting up from my chair to direct his attention towards any of it. He is doing exactly what a kid should be doing during the dog days of summer — daydreaming.

It looks like he is doing nothing and in today’s culture of go!go!go! and over-scheduling kids, his apparent laziness might cause some to panic. He is not currently building any bankable skills nor learning how to excel at a sport. He is not reading. He is not playing a game.

He is just sitting there, doing nothing.

But I’m okay with it. We did our camps and our swim lessons and now is time for him to zone out to the sound of wind chimes and street construction and the city bus zooming by. If he were listening closely he could hear his sister’s singing from the bedroom and the next door neighbors talking in their yard.

I think our kids need more time unscheduled, unplugged, unlimited. Daydreaming allows the imagination to stretch its legs, and that gives our kids the ability to invent, problem solve, create, and inspire.

Maybe he is watching the leaves rustle in the hot breeze or counting the chirps from the cardinal perched on the fence. Maybe he is in another world entirely, fighting sea monsters or traveling through space or building cities in his mind. Perhaps he is playing a vignette in his imagination, giving a silent voice over to the script because the only words he knows how to write are “Ben”, “I love my Mom”, and “Star Wars”.

Maybe he is building a machine, one that runs on the leftover sprinkles that fall to the plate after decorating cookies. Maybe he has discovered a rare bird, one whose song soothes the sick. Maybe he is a traveler, teaching magic tricks to the children of a village in exchange for dinner and a cot. Maybe he is a dog catcher, a fishermen, a stay-at-home dad. Maybe he is training alligators, or building tree houses so large a family could live in them. Maybe he is discovering how fairies make glitter.

Maybe he is doing something the imagination of his thirty five year old mom cannot conjure, a something that only a five year old could see and believe in.

Empires of imagination are built on long stretches of uninterrupted time. So sit he will on this dog day afternoon, because in the apparent nothingness is everything.

Benny doing more of nothing, on another dog day afternoon.

New Spring Designs!

Our Cannonball! line is dedicated to showing boys and girls playing together, and playing outside. Here are our two new designs for spring, they can be purchased here.


WHOOPS! We made a BIG mistake on this image. See below for the update.


UPDATE: During the revealing of these designs on facebook it was pointed out that the kids riding bikes should be wearing helmets. DOH! My customers were absolutely right, and it was a huge oversight on the part of my artist and I. We quickly corrected our error, and the design below is what is for sale and available to put on custom built tees and totes….Thank for the feedback to help make this design perfect!

Our bike riders now have helmets!

Kaboom 2012 Playground Challenge

A great organization that builds play spaces for kids.

Oh, it is on, y’all. The awesome folks at KaBOOM! emailed last week asking if I’d share about their 2012 Playground Challenge. Now I love the amazing work that KaBOOM! does building much needed play spaces for kids, and I think this competition is right up the alley of all of our Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies families….but the reason I said yes is because if there is one thing the Original Pigtail Pal and ol’ Benny Boy know how to do, it is tear up a playground.  With KaBOOM! choosing the top three point earners in the Playground Challenge to win a week-long trip for two to Washington DC, this is the most fun you’ll have this summer working at play.

Did I mention my family lives in a city with the nickname “Wisconsin’s Park Place”? Yeah that’s right, we’ve got 64 parks here. I just might have the kids start sleeping with their sneakers on. Go grab your sunscreen, because you’ve got some competition!


Parents should play too!

As the national nonprofit KaBOOM! kicks off its 2012 Summer Playground Challenge — which challenges families to explore as many playgrounds as you can this summer and offers prizes for your playground visits — past Challenge participant Liza Sullivan explains why having three boys home for the summer motivated her to get outside.

The summer of 2010 was a summer I will always remember—but not because of an exotic vacation or cross-country road trip or adventure-filled summer camp. Instead, I stayed right at home and explored local playgrounds with my twins. We were one of six families to participate in the first-ever KaBOOM! Summer Playground Challenge.

When the Challenge ended, I observed a marked change in my children – they appeared healthier, happier, stronger, and more self-confident. While everyone knows that outdoor play is beneficial for kids, what I didn’t expect was how transformative the Challenge proved for mom as well!

Here are five reasons why parents should join the 2012 Playground Challenge:

  1. Regular outdoor play is good for the soul. Activities like swinging, building sandcastles, rolling down grassy hills, and running through a fountain on hot summer days help you feel like a kid again. You will also have incentive to escape from computers, piles of laundry, and other distractions.
  2. It’s easier to get your kids to bed. Each day will provide your children with opportunities to be physically active as they increase their strength, coordination, and endurance. As a result, they won’t be as squirmy at home and will rarely have trouble falling asleep at night!
  3. Play opens doors to teachable moments. Rather than constantly playing the role of disciplinarian, you become a support to your child’s exploration, discovery, and learning. As you explore playgrounds and nature areas, your children will undoubtedly ask you endless questions, and each day will be filled with teachable moments.
  4. You meet new people in your neighborhood. As you explore, you will inevitably strike up conversations with other parents, contributing to a sense of community and connectedness. This can be particularly meaningful for stay-at-home parents – a job that is sometimes very isolating.
  5. Your family can experience new places right at home. Many participants, myself included, found that until they took on the Challenge, they were unaware of the surprising number of parks, playgrounds, and nature preserves in or near their community. They discovered hidden gems and explored nearby neighborhoods they had never had reason to visit before.

As a gift to yourself and your children this summer, allow for plenty of time to play, and consider being a part of the national 2012 Playground Challenge!

Outdoor play builds strength and confidence.






Outdoor play allows for free play and making new friends.

Images via KaBOOM!

Liza Sullivan is a mom of twins in Winnetka, Ill. An Adjunct Faculty Member and Professional Development Instructor for the Winnetka Alliance for Childhood, recently co-founded Through Play, an early childhood educational resource for parents and educators. Get motivated to visit more playgrounds with your kids this summer by joining the 2012 Playground Challenge! The three top Challengers will win a trip for two to DC and all participants can win great prizes throughout the summer.