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Interview with inventor and entrepreneur Laurel Wider, creator of the ‘Wonder Crew Dolls’

Dolls are frequently associated with girls but, in 2017, a company called PlayMonster released a new line of dolls for boys known as the “Wonder Crew”. The series aims to combat gender stereotypes and empowers young boys to build confidence through friendship and imagination. The series was created by psychotherapist Laurel Wider, who is also a mother of boys. She launched Wonder Crew on Kickstarter in Spring 2015 and it quickly garnered praise from the media, parents, and educational professionals. In late 2016 she partnered with PlayMonster to expand and bring the line to mass market.

Wonder Crew dolls are akin to plush action figures targeted to boys aged between two and five. This is an age range where boys show interest in dolls—as well as being an important age for the development of compassion, kindness, and other emotional milestones—yet there was a notable gap in the toy market concerning dolls (or “buddies” as Laurel calls her dolls) that were appropriate for boys. Laurel Wider wanted boys to know that it is okay to feel sad and cry sometimes; a message that has long been provided to girls whereas boys are often cast into the role of “acting tougher” from very young ages. For her efforts, Laurel was invited to speak at the White House where she discussed toys, media, and the importance of combating of gender stereotypes. In addition, earlier this year, Wider sat on a panel with Geena Davis during the Bentonville Film Festival; where a group of executives discussed diversity and inclusion.

Meagan Meehan (MM) of Entertainment Vine: What inspired the dolls and how many are currently in the line?

IMG_8575bbLaurel Wider (LW): As a psychotherapist and mom, I was shocked when my own son came home from preschool with the message that “boys aren’t supposed to cry”. Culturally, we raise our boys to prioritize toughness and self-reliance –from my work with clients I’ve seen this lead to isolation, depression and sometimes aggression.

The Grant Study published in 2012, followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 75 years, the findings: Strong relationships and the ability to connect emotionally are key to happiness, health and even career success. I did some digging, we know that play impacts child development – toys have the power to influence the way kids see themselves and the world around them. As I surveyed toys marketed to boys, I couldn’t find anything with a human face that encouraged the kind of play that supported close relationships or friendships. Instead I saw many action figures, heavy on muscles and aggression, which doesn’t lend itself to connection, empathy or nurturing – I set out fill this gap in toys.

Currently Wonder Crew has four diverse dolls that all come in our Superhero Adventure, matching child-sized cape and mask included. We also have three Adventure Packs (Builder, Explorer and Snuggler/PJ’s) – kids can keep the same doll or buddy and change the adventure, matching child-sized accessories are also included in these packs.

MM: What are some of the most damaging aspects to gender stereotyping?

LW: Gender stereotypes set limits on personality, potential and self-expression. When we box people in based on gender (or race, body type, ability, SE, etc.), this not only effects the individual, but also restricts the scope of what they can contribute to the world.
Ideally, we raise and support the whole child so that they turn into whole adults – when we stereotype or box kids in, we’re shutting down their potential, we’re shutting down a piece of their identity, which can cause a range of mental health issues.

MM: What was the process of starting a toy line like?

LW: I knew what I wanted to accomplish, I knew the play pattern that I wanted to see. Luckily, I was accepted into a business accelerator program called Valley Venture Mentors where I got tons of guidance. I went out and interviewed over 150 parents, kids, educators, toy industry experts and psychologists and learned that: *Doll play teaches a wealth of social and emotional skills. *Boys are interested in playing with dolls. *Yet there’s a stigma attached for many * and the word doll itself is a barrier. Based on this research, I came up with a concept: I basically merged the adventure of an action figure with the emotional connection of a favorite stuffed animal. Nurturing comes in all forms — why can’t a superhero also be a nurturer. Wonder Crew launched through a successful Kickstarter campaign in Spring 2015 and it just took off from there.

MM: You were invited to speak at the White House! What was that like?

IMG_8576ccLW: The White House conference, “Helping our Children Explore, Learn and Dream without Limits: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys” was incredible. I was honored to join in on this important conversation with other changemaker organizations and companies aiming to elevate our kids. What an inspiring day!

MM: PlayMonster licensed the brand. How did that come about?

LW: Since the launch, Wonder Crew has made its way across the country and gained national recognition with features in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Upworthy, Parent’s Magazine, The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, ABC News, Huffington Post and more! Long story short, word got out about Wonder Crew and sales kept increasing. I knew I needed a partner and so a friend introduced me to PlayMonster. They loved the Wonder Crew concept and completely understood the value.

MM: Are you still involved with the creative aspects of this series?

LW: Yes, we work collaboratively on the line expansions and content – it’s been great!

MM: What are you planning to unveil in the near future?

LW: Our mission is to empower all kids to see themselves as connected, creative, strong individuals with the ability to go anywhere and be anything – we’ve got lots of ground to cover!

MM: Why do you think it’s so important for boys to know that they can show emotion?

LW: Because this is an important piece of their identity and emotional expression is integral to healthy relationships.

MM: What have been some of the reactions that young boys have had to your dolls–or “buddies”?

IMG_8580ddLW: This has been the best part about Wonder Crew. We’re getting emails, posts and images daily from parents talking about their son’s: nurturing their Wonder Crew “babies” and friends, we’ve heard about kids playing dad, big brother, friend…tucking their dolls in every night, taking their Wonder Crew buddies everywhere they go, adventuring out with them, pretending to feed them and essentially taking care of them in a variety ways – it’s been amazing to see all the feedback! Feel free to check out our Facebook page, parents post often!

MM: What do you think society can do to further nurture and empower both boys and girls?

LW: Send them the message that they can “go anywhere and be anything” (our motto) regardless of gender, race, ability, etc. Kids are so attuned, they’re sponges – imagine if toys, media, literature, and the overall social message was an inclusive one, one that said, you belong and you have infinite potential.

MM: Where do you see the brand going from here? Essentially, how would you like to see it evolve?

LW: I’d like to see more dolls or buddies representing an even wider range of kids and many more adventures!

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To learn more about the “Wonder Crew” line, visit their official website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Moreover, parent company PlayMonster can be followed on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram via @PlayMonsterFun

Meagan Meehan

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author, poet, cartoonist and produced playwright. She pens columns for the Great South Bay Magazine, Examiner and AXS. She is also a stop motion animator and an award-winning abstract artist. Meagan holds a Bachelors in English Literature and a Masters of Communication. She is an animal advocate and a fledging toy and game designer.
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