Sensors Mag

Putting Kids in Charge of Play

September 11, 2006 By: Melanie Martella, Sensors


E-mail Melanie Martella

Here's a fascinating new addition to the world of robotic toys: PicoCricket. The same MIT resesarcher who worked with Lego to create its Mindstorms product is behind The Playful Invention Company, the company creating these more open-ended robotics kits.

Robots, Now With Pom Poms!

Read this article in Business Week and make sure to look at the slideshow included. Actually, watch the slideshow twice, because the toys the kids are creating with these kits are mind-blowing.

PicoCricket kits don't just include bricks and the same kind of brains, sensors, and motors that you might find in a Mindstorms set. They also include more traditional craft materials, which is why, in the slideshow, you'll find things like bedecked butterflies that interact with each other and boots with dangling light-up ping pong balls that change color based on the walking pace of the wearer, using sensors on the soles to detect speed.

Child-Directed Play

I once had an interesting conversation with friends who are the parents of three boys. I asked them whether they found the kind of electronic toys available affected the quality of their children's play--whether the toys had so many capabilities that the kid really didn't have to do anything other than turn them on. Their answer was enlightening; in their experience, the kids were far more passive with these kinds of toys--the toys did all the work and the kids just expected to sit back and be entertained. In light of this, they chose not to buy their children these kinds of toys.

The plural of anecdote is not data, however, so I chalked it up as an interesting data point and moved on. Then I read this quote from the Business Week article:

"There are lots of electronic toys out there," says Resnick. "But they come preprogrammed with behaviors that kids then interact with. Our goal was to put more control in the hands of kids."

Mitchel Resnick is a researcher at MIT's Media Lab and runs the Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten group. He also worked with Lego to develop the first Mindstorms line.

My dad was a high school shop teacher. On the wall of his main workshop he pinned up the following quote from Confucius:

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

That's why toys like this are so wonderful--they expand the ways that children can interact with their world while sneaking the math and science in under cover of fun. (Hey, now I know what to buy my nephews for Christmas this year!)

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