Play to Learn
Greta (McGregor) Pennell takes the science of play seriously. But, not too seriously to dress up as an elf in the name of science.
Pennell, a professor of teacher education at the University of Indianapolis, is an international toy expert.
To get the real scoop on what toys children desire, Pennell (’79 zoology), says she needed to go straight to the source.
“The model of research was driving the results. Kids are smart, and they know the ‘right’ answer to give during an interview,” Pennell says. “So, I dressed as an elf and hung out with Santa in two states — New Jersey and Pennsylvania. My research notes were jotted down in a teddybear covered notebook,” she says. Her dissertation – Doing Gender with Santa: Gender-typing in Children’s Toy Preferences.
SPARK FOR SCIENCE
The misconception that girls can’t be scientists was never an issue for Pennell. And, she’s working to make sure children, regardless of gender, can get a start in science from day one.
“Growing up and my whole time at Iowa State, I never got a feeling girls couldn’t do science,” Pennell says. “My father in particular nurtured a respect for the outdoors and wildlife, and Girl Scouting was another major influence in my life. At Iowa State I was in the campus gold (scout) group, and Lois Tiffany (professor of botany) was our adviser. She was another wonderfully talented, amazing woman in science who encouraged me.”
Pennell’s interests drew her to biology, then pre-vet and eventually to a zoology major. Animal behavior captured her attention and she honed her expertise to focus on human behavior and development. A former high school teacher and life-long learner, Pennell has a doctorate and master’s degree from Rutgers University in developmental and social psychology. She also earned a master’s in educational administration from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s in education from Indiana University following her time at Iowa State.
While pursuing advanced degrees she studied how people see themselves within a gendered framework including how kids think about themselves.
“One of the interview protocols was having people describe their bedrooms, including their toys and games and what they like to do,” Pennell says. “I was struck by how much college students talked about toys and had them in their dorm rooms.”
Her research interest grew, and she began to further examine how toys play a role in developmental psychology.
Following her dissertation work, Pennell connected with other toy experts around the globe. She has served as vice president of the International Toy Research Association and recently completed a research fellowship at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
“I had the chance to give a lecture at the University of Indianapolis as a visiting scholar and I could personally attest for Dr. Pennell’s outstanding performance in her Gender in Toyland class,” says Danielle Almeida, professor and toy researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development in Brazil. “Among her professional accomplishments, Dr. Pennell excels in administrative achievements, publications, conference presentations as well as awarded grants.”
In January 2019, Pennell was one of just 20 participants in the 18th International Symposium, Workshop and Exhibition on Toy Design and Inclusive Play in Berlin, Germany. Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the focus of the workshop was to develop new toys for children and adults with various levels of ability that increase their joy of playing, support inclusive education and contribute to ecological sustainability.
TEACHING IN TOYLAND
At the University of Indianapolis, Pennell is an award-winning teacher. She offers the popular class “Doing Gender in Toyland” among her many offerings for future educators. A sample of student evaluations reveals her ability to connect with students:
- “Our final project was to actually design, execute, evaluate and present some sort of study that involved gender and children… Dr. Pennell helped me design the study, pick out which toys and colors to use and even set me up with a local preschool… It helped get my feet wet with research.”
- “Dr. Pennell definitely shared her passion and dedication… This course and my research truly left a lasting impact on my opinions of how gender can affect the lives of children and their choices in toys.”
- “She gave my classmates and me the opportunity to think deeper… I have a much stronger appreciation for research, I have completely changed my outlook on toys and how I will encourage my future children and future elementary aged students to interact with a variety of toys.”
Her latest research on gendered pet toys is bringing her full-circle, back to zoology and research on non-human play.
“In much the same way traditional children’s toys have morphed to developmentally staged options and expanded to boy and girl versions with tie-ins to movies and other licensed properties, so too have pet toys. This is especially the case within the dog toy segment,” she says.
In addition to her official research, she’s always making toys for her four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and neighborhood children.
“I enjoy making toys and creating ‘to-do’ projects, whether it’s in the neighborhood or on a beach walk,” she says.
There’s always an opportunity to play and to learn.
DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD
Zoology alum Greta Pennell was one of just 20 toy experts to participate in the 2019 International Symposium, Workshop and Exhibition on Toy Design and Inclusive Play in Berlin, Germany. Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the focus of the workshop was to develop new toys for children and adults with various levels of ability that increase their joy of playing, support inclusive education and contribute to ecological sustainability.
Pennell’s “Don’t lose your head” toy, based on the principles of inertia, was inspired by “snow people” children often make. “It’s a very simple stacking toy made of gender-neutral green, yellow and purple wooden balls. The balls have a hole in one side and short peg in the other. The game is to stack them up on a cloth and the challenge is to pull the cloth out from under the snow person without ‘loosing your head,’” says Pennell. Good for all ages and abilities, the toy offers various levels to increase or decrease difficulty depending on fabrics and figures used.