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Annie, Get Your Screw Gun
Diana Kapp | Photo: Gabriela Hasbun | March 22, 2013
How a fully wired, build-it-youself dollhouse could foster the next generation of girl geeks.
It’s a chilly winter Saturday, and the gray flooring at Roominate’s headquarters/toy-testing space in a Mountain View office park is littered with scraps of old socks and brightly colored felt, teal and sky blue building pieces, battery packs bristling with wires, and three very intent little girls.
Michaela, 11, clicks two plastic squares into a rectangle, completing a tiny couch exactly like the one in the package insert. She’s making replicas of everything shown—the dining table, the bunk bed, the table saw, the treadmill—and lining them up in front of her in a pastel parade.
Her nine-year-old sister, Anneka, meanwhile, has slyly hoarded every circuit around and is attempting to get her night light, washing machine, and fan to run off a single switch. But the multiple wires tethered to the dollhouse walls are proving awkward, and she’s trying to Scotch-tape the problem away. Seven-year-old Emma, in a magenta tunic, could care less about electronics. She’s enthralled with the dozens of stickers that come with the dollhouse kit, arranging them across the three white plastic walls she’s configured into a bedroom. “There are even teensy ice cream cones,” she sings out.
Roominate’s creators, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, watch with feigned casualness. This isn’t some impromptu playdate, after all: It’s a focus group. And the little girls aren’t necessarily exploring the toy the way that the founders want them to. It frustrates Brooks that so many kids ask, “Where are the instructions?” “If they just played with it a little bit, they could figure it out,” she says. “We worked really hard to say, ‘Here are some ideas, but you can really do anything.’” It goes without saying that Brooks is a tinkerer: For her, the fun is using the plastic shapes and circuits to make something novel. “I was so excited when I built a little elevator with a pulley so it could move up and down,” she says.
But what she and Chen would do if they were Michaela or Emma isn’t the point. The point is that so many of the hundreds of kids they have observed playing with the Roominate kits—the sequined-tutu types, the tomboys, the pip-squeaks, the tweens—are completely absorbed. “When girls are all telling their moms, ‘I’m not leaving!’ when the session is up—that’s when you know you have something,” Brooks says.
Brooks and Chen are 25 and 24, respectively, but in their skinny jeans and flip-flops, they look closer to 15—young enough to recall how much they loved constructing and crafting as kids. Brooks was raised in a robot lab with grad students as babysitters, playing with miniature power tools alongside her Barbies (her dad was a robotics professor at MIT). Her mother was an early DIYer: “When I begged for Barbie clothes, Mom said, ‘Make them.’” The more laid-back Chen, who grew up in Seattle, was smitten with Beanie Babies, but also with her older brother’s Legos. “It was really normal at my home to be building things,” she says. “Only later did I realize how unusual that is.”
Now Brooks and Chen are Stanford-educated engineers on a not-so-secret mission to inspire a generation of girls to grow up to be scientists, inventors, and explorers. The Roominate kit, marketed by their year-old company, Maykah, may look like a construct-your-own dollhouse, or bowling alley, or palace. But it’s really a stealth learning lab, designed to stretch little girls’ brains until they explode with so many exciting possibilities that the spell of even the most powerful Disney enchantress is obliterated.