Barbie World: Is It What I Thought It Would Be?

“I played with Barbie as a kid, and I turned out fine.”  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that. I could say the same about myself, and minus a few insecure moments about my muscular-and-not-thin thighs, I have by and large turned out okay. My Barbies used to have awesome adventures, mixed in with my LEGO, My Little Pony, and my brothers’ GI Joe. I remember liking the safari outfit just as much as the sparkly ballgown. I never had a Ken doll, my Barbies were far too busy career building and adventuring to worry about that nonsense. I have a more tolerant palette for Barbie than I do princesses, but I think that is in part because princesses weren’t big when I was a kid in the 1980’s (the Disney Princesses weren’t a brand yet) and my Barbies came ready for adventure and didn’t have a pre-written story to be reenacted.

You’ve seen my evolution with Barbie and my daughter play out here. Amelia was six when she got her first Barbie – a mermaid Barbie. She now has several, and plays with them when she is in the tub or pool. Her Barbie collection totals seven dolls: five mermaids, one Surfer Barbie, and one Sea World Trainer Barbie. She also has a Barbie knock-off dolphin trainer from Shedd Aquarium, and a Bindi Irwin Surfer Girl.

While we have stayed far away from sexualized dolls and remain adamant they will not come into our home, I have been able to wrap my head around some of the Barbies. Consider it the “How to be a fan of problematic things” approach. I know the body image issues with Barbie and I have discussed them many times with Amelia, to the point that she can articulate them for herself. As mentioned above, most of her Barbies are mermaids so I didn’t have to worry about sexy outfits because these dolls are half-fish. The Surfer Barbie has a tankini painted on her body, and the Sea World Trainer came in a wetsuit, water shoes, and a fanny pack of smelt.

So I’m not as anti-Barbie as I used to be, but my daughter is older now with more developed critical-thinking skills. The child is an aquatic humanoid and needed dolls that could go in the water with her. She plays for hours swimming with her mermaids, training large imaginary marine animals, rescuing Arctic seals, training her little brother to be a merman, you name it. Her Barbie Mermaids are floating in the pool nearby, helping to create the stage her imagination plays out on.

I know a lot of other people’s girls move beyond the fashion-wedding world of Barbie into true adventures fit for girls ready to take on and take over the world. We had a great discussion on the PPBB facebook page last week about the good that can be extracted from the Disney Princess brand. A ton of parents said that was really helpful, so I’d like to do the same for Barbie. I’ll compile all of this next week into a blog series, because there are some seriously helpful insights to be shared.

So what I’d like to know is:

1. For those of you whose daughters have Barbies, what kind of stories do they play out with their dolls? Where do they play with their dolls?

2. What kinds of tweaks and changes to the story/character development of Barbie could be made to help parents to be more comfortable with the brand? So, maybe we can’t change the physical appearance of Barbie, but much like we did with LEGO when the Friends line was released, what is a “To Do” list we could create to post for parents to see ways that Barbie could be improved and develop more creative play? More adventure outfits and accessories to use in play? New friends to introduce? New story lines?

Amelia's Barbie collection, which now resides outside by the pool for the summer.

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!

Make Believe Animals Made of Make Believe Colors

This weekend my kids were hanging out with a bunch of friends and I was leading them in a group art project. It was a game left over from Amelia’s Wild Kratts-themed birthday party the week before, and I figured it would keep the crew busy while dinner was being made upstairs.

The game had two teams creating newly discovered animals during a Creature Adventure. The three seven year olds and the four four year olds divided into to teams to begin their projects. Each group was given a sheet of poster board, a box of primary colored markers, and a lunch bag that contained one-sentence clues that would help them create their animal. The seven year olds were in charge of reading the clues and the four year olds were in charge of putting caps back on the markers. Each teammate took a turn pulling a clue and drawing the characteristic described. The big kids did a great job coaching the little kids.

The clues said things like “This animals has crazy fur” or “This animals has wings”. Tusks, long legs, short legs, polka dots, and sharp claws were some other clues. As the different teams pulled out the clues in random order, it was fun to watch the two make believe animals take shape. There was lots of imagination being put to good use!

At one point, one of the four year old boys reached for a pair of markers that one of the seven year old girls deemed “girl colors”. She tried to hand him two different colors she thought were more appropriate, but his little lip started to quiver and tears sprang to his eyes.

“But but but I want peeeeeink and purble,” the little guy said, holding out is hand for the pink and purple markers, pushing the blue and green markers away with his other hand.

“Well, I think these are better for you because these are boy colors,” the older girl tried reassuring him.

“Peeeeink and purble, please,” he repeated, not wavering.

At this moment both of my kids, who were on opposite teams, said in unison, “Colors are for everyone.” All of the kids put their heads up to see what was going on.

“If our animals are totally new and never discovered before, do you think there is such a thing as girl colors and boy colors for them?” I asked.

The older girl smiled at me, then her eyes got big and she let out a big laugh.

“OH MY GOSH! I FORGOT!” she giggled, and handed the little boy the pink and purple markers. She watched him draw the animal characteristic from his clue, helped him with a question, and told him he did a nice job and gave him a hug.

Just a simple little reminder was all it took to put down any gender stereotypes and the kids went on being kids again.

As both teams finished their pictures I told them we would go out in the woods tomorrow and try to find animal tracks and that maybe we would find some that matched our new animals. The animals were fun to look at, and it was cool to see the beginning drawing skills of the four year olds compared to the more advanced skills of the seven year olds.

The next morning we were making a thank you sign for the owner of the cabin we had been visiting all weekend. Each of the seven kids was choosing a marker to sign their name. As 4yo Benny reached for a marker to sign his name, he chose pink. The older girl from the day before was standing by him and said, “Benny, your name looks nice in pink.”

“Yeah it does,” said Benny. “Pink is a breeally nice color.”

“All the colors are nice when they are together. Do you want to go outside now?” And off they ran.

One of the Creature Adventure teams.


Another Creature Adventure team hard at work.

Judgy: Girls, Heels, and Playtime

Image via Ritika Kamal

We enjoyed the evening at a park watching the sun set while the kids played and splashed in the stream. A group quickly formed, with the older girls initiating a building project on a rock in the stream while the little brothers brought them giant handfuls of sand. The girls would get the sand wet, and then drip it onto the tower that was forming. During this a girl walked up in an all-pink and sparkly outfit, tiara headband thing, complete with white tutu and white heeled sandals. The girl then proceeded to kick off her heels, and get right into the mix, getting wet and grimy from the sand and even became the leader of the project. A bit later I watched her climb to the top of a nine foot log in her heels. She wasn’t able to run or climb as well as the other kids, but she was right in the thick of it.
Her outfit isn’t something I’d send Amelia in to the park to play and explore, but it was an important reminder for me that we can look critically at media and products for our kids, but we need to see the child first and foremost. We can disapprove of the inappropriateness of girls clothing without disapproving of the girl. If there is one thing this group knows, it is the limitlessness of how amazing our girls can be. No matter what they are wearing.


When I posted this on facebook last night, a large discussion followed mostly from moms defending their daughter’s right to be a princess. I agree, their daughter has the right to be a princess…..and a doctor and a potter and a organic pepper farmer. I’m anti-limitation, and that’s it. My issue isn’t with sparkles and tutus. It is with the limitation of play and movement that girls apparel can create. I replied with this:

“I love childhood. I love the little people who compose it. But when we teach half of those people that their role is to be pretty and sweet and to act in a certain prescribed way, I have issues. Certainly, we can redefine what “princess” means in their play and many of us do. But there is a larger cultural context that is much harder to escape, and one which “little girl princess” becomes the gateway drug to the fast-forwarded tween years and the age compression, Beauty Myth, and consumerism we see going on. (Ultimately, no matter how you play, being a princess is about entitlement, which I’m not big on.) I love me some sparkle and bling and fair wings. Both Ben and Amelia have been known to rock that look. And my kids wear super hero masks and take magic wands to the park, so I can’t very well be snarky about a tutu and some sparkle.

But what I do have issue with is the restriction of movement and play. A visual example of this is the video I posted in the beginning of the week that shows young teen girls on the soccer field at play, only to be brainwashed by the beauty messages coming over the loud speaker and leave the field teetering in heels and hot pants. The Beauty Myth is constricting, both emotionally and physically, and that is my focus here.

I’ve seen girls tear around in dresses or skirts or fancy outfits, so that isn’t an issue for me. I tend to offer my kids soft leggings or jeans and t-shirts to romp in, but to each their own. My issue is the shoes, or the outfit that is so fancy the girl might not want (or not be allowed) to get dirty. Amelia has and loves her sparkle shoes, and didn’t mind when she busted the sparkles off while playing on the playground. If she had become fussy about that, she would have been told to leave them at home for dress up and get her sneakers on. Play is the work of the child, and she needs to dress appropriately for work. If what she is wearing inhibits her play and her gross motor movement during play, then she is asked to change. We see how skimpy and tight older girls clothing is, and the ridiculousness of their shoes. I hear time and again from coaches and dance teachers how oddly some girls move their bodies, because they are used to standing still and being pretty due to restricting clothing. I remember seeing this myself when I was a teacher of elementary girls wearing tight, low cut jeans and belly shirts. They had to stand perfectly still in order for the outfit to work. When we know sports (including dance) to be a partial cure to the wretched body image stats we see coming out of the 8-18yo demographic, I connect the limiting of movement and play into the spoon fed monster that is poor body image.

Girlhood is a magical time to be whimsical and imaginative and enchanting. If the girls are also encouraged to be astronauts and artists and farmers, playing princess can be great. Girls need the freedom to move their bodies comfortably during play to really be able to fully explore and take in the world. Many times their apparel does not allow them to do that, and we need to question that. But we have to stop and ask ourselves, is this a question we have to ask of our boys? If the answer is no, we need to take a look at why then is it only an issue of limiting our girls, and why we accept that.”

High heels cause damage to the feet, knee ligaments, and bones in the legs, feet, and back.

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.