Get ready to build! Hands-on toys that teach are pop­u­lar

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Toys that teach aren’t a new thing, but a grow­ing num­ber are calling for kids to build with blocks, cir­cuits or ev­ery­day items be­fore reach­ing for a tablet screen.

Play is how kids learn about the world around them, whether it’s a tod­dler throw­ing a ball or teens play­ing video games. It’s about see­ing how things work and what hap­pens when they do some­thing. And over the years, toys have got­ten more high tech to keep screen-ob­sessed chil­dren en­gaged with such play.

But there’s grow­ing worry among par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors that toys are mov­ing too far in that di­rec­tion. Ed­u­ca­tional toys that have a math and sci­ence bent - mar­keted un­der the um­brella of STEM - are now try­ing to get back to the ba­sics: less screen time, more hands-on ac­tiv­i­ties. “When kids use their hands, your out­comes are much higher,” said Pramod Sharma, CEO of one such toy com­pany, Osmo. “It’s very dif­fer­ent than if they’re just star­ing at a screen watch­ing TV.”

With Osmo, kids learn ev­ery­thing from spell­ing to coding not by touch­ing a screen, but by snap­ping to­gether mag­netic blocks. A screen is still part of it; an im­age is beamed onto an iPad through its cam­era. But the idea is to have kids learn first with their hands, then see their cre­ation move to the screen.

Learn by build­ing

Ed­u­ca­tors agree that whether you’re talk­ing about a tod­dler play­ing with blocks, or a teen build­ing a com­puter from scratch, the act of putting some­thing to­gether helps ed­u­ca­tional con­cepts sink in.

“The way the world comes to us is ac­tu­ally through tac­tile ac­tiv­i­ties, so tac­tile toys where we build stuff are in­cred­i­ble help­ful,” said Karen So­bel-Lo­jeski, who stud­ies the ef­fects of tech­nol­ogy on chil­dren’s brain de­vel­op­ment at Stony Brook Uni­ver­sity on Long Is­land, New York.

Blox­els at­tempts to bridge the phys­i­cal and the dig­i­tal. Kids build their own video games by putting plas­tic blocks in a spe­cial tray, in­stead of writ­ing out code. Us­ing a phone or tablet’s cam­era, an app trans­forms the shapes cre­ated with the blocks into dig­i­tal char­ac­ters and scenery.

Makey Makey, a startup founded by a pair of MIT stu­dents, asks kids to come up with their own elec­tronic cre­ations by com­bin­ing soft­ware, cir­cuits and ev­ery­day items like ba­nanas and dough­nuts.

Good, but pop­u­lar?

So­bel-Lo­jeski said toys are most ed­u­ca­tional when kids can learn how things work by build­ing. But Juli Len­nett, a toy in­dus­try an­a­lyst at NPD, said such toys are rarely on kids’ wish lists.

On the other hand, tech toys that have sub­tle ed­u­ca­tional value, but aren’t specif­i­cally mar­keted as such, can be strong sell­ers. Len­nett cites Fisher-Price’s Think & Learn Code-a-Pil­lar, which in­tro­duces ba­sic coding con­cepts by let­ting preschool­ers as­sem­ble seg­ments that each tells the caterpillar to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, such as “turn left” or “play sound.”

“I’m not sure that kids are ask­ing for it, or that their par­ents just want their kids to go to Har­vard, but it’s def­i­nitely one of the top-sell­ing toys this hol­i­day,” Len­nett said.

Tracy Achinger, a former au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer in Shelby Town­ship, Michi­gan, said her 8-year-old son got in­ter­ested in coding af­ter start­ing com­puter pro­gram­ing classes this year. So for Christ­mas, she’s buy­ing him an Ozobot, a golf ball-sized robot that kids can pro­gram by draw­ing dif­fer­ent col­ored lines or us­ing a kid-friendly, block-based pro­gram­ing lan­guage.

Tech has its lim­its

Achinger’s 3-year-old son will be get­ting an iPad this year. She said she isn’t against screen time, but be­lieves par­ents need to keep an eye on what their kids are watch­ing and play­ing. She said her older son has been play­ing cre­ative games such as “Minecraft” for a few years.

“We try to keep it ed­u­ca­tional,” Achinger said. “I re­ally think those kinds of games get their imag­i­na­tions go­ing as they cre­ate their own worlds.”

The Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics re­cently re­vised its guide­lines to shift the em­pha­sis away from ban­ning screen time and to­ward bal­anc­ing high-qual­ity con­tent with non-screen ac­tiv­i­ties.

That doesn’t mean ev­ery toy with a screen is ed­u­ca­tional. Bar­bie has her own smart home in the form of the voice-ac­ti­vated and Wi-Fi-con­nected Hello Dream­house. And new ver­sions of Elmo, Furby and the Cab­bage Patch Kids have apps, which Len­nett said are of­ten more about brand­ing than learn­ing.

So­bel-Lo­jeski said slap­ping an app on a pre­vi­ously low-tech toy can back­fire. In­stead of let­ting the child imag­ine how a par­tic­u­lar toy would talk or be­have, the app fills in those holes.

“It cuts the child off from play that is much more im­por­tant for de­vel­op­ment,” she said.

Some of the drive for tech in toys comes from par­ents who be­lieve that the younger their kids are ex­posed to tech­nol­ogy, the more pre­pared they will be for a lu­cra­tive ca­reer some­day.

But So­bel-Lo­jeski said Al­bert Ein­stein came up with break­throughs with­out ever touch­ing a com­puter, let alone tech toys at a young age.

“We can eas­ily be tricked into think­ing that all this stuff is go­ing to make our kids more in­tel­li­gent or bet­ter sci­en­tists and that’s just not true,” she said.

Re­sist the screen

Com­pa­nies that make com­put­ers for kids also see the value in a con­struc­tion el­e­ment.

Kano shows kids how to build their own com­put­ers in a kid-friendly sto­ry­book for­mat.

Kano co-founder Alex Klein said he had to re­sist sug­ges­tions to just put Kano into app form and skip the com­puter con­struc­tion all to­gether. He said the act of build­ing a com­puter was key be­cause it “cre­ated a huge sense of en­ergy and mo­men­tum for what fol­lowed on screen.” — AP

This photo pro­vided by WowWee shows CHiP, a robot dog that cud­dles, plays fetch and fol­lows you around the house. Whether you’re look­ing for some­thing ed­u­ca­tional, or a toy that’s just for fun, there are a lot of choices for the hol­i­days. — AP

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