I’ve been teaching Maker-style enrichment programs for kids for almost a decade, but it’s only been the last year or so that I’ve started adding electronic kits and tools to my core roster of low tech/no tech robotics and other STEAM activities. What I’ve found is that, for me, the most useful educational products all share certain qualities. So this year, as I walked around Toy Fair New York, I focused on those features that I believe the best learning toys should have.
I don’t have a problem with kits that help you build a really awesome project, but toys that allow for open-ended play and exploration allow kids to develop imagination as well as building skills.
Ease and Reliability
As an English major in an engineer’s world, I do best when a toy or tool works right out of the box. The more I need to fiddle with it to get it going, the less likely I am to actually get it up and running. As a teacher who carries my supplies around to schools and libraries all year long, I need products that stand up to heavy usage for long periods of time.
Printed Instructions and Information
As more toys use apps to enhance their value as teaching tools, this may sound like a throwback to an earlier era. But for many of us printed directions are easier to follow than text on a screen. That’s one reason I was so pleased with the new littleBits Gizmos and Gadgets kit which came out around Christmas last year. The printed instructions and suggested projects really helped bump littleBits out of the realm of “promising concept” to “tool I can use with students.”
A Robust Educational Community
I recently began playing around with Makey Makey and Scratch. I’ve been holding workshops to see what kids would do with them and thinking about ways to use them for specific projects. I love that I can go online and find tons of videos and projects showing how other educators (and kids) have used them.
Lesson Plans Online
The one question I asked every product rep at Toy Fair who started to tell me about the educational value of their brand was whether they had a section of their website where teachers could go to find detailed examples of how to use in a classroom or enrichment program. It’s a good sign when a toy company works with educators and draws on their experience.
Many robot toys are working to beef up their offerings for teachers. One good example is Sphero. I had seen a demonstration of Sphero’s resources for educators at Toy Fair a couple years ago. Their new instruction arm, SPRK, offers the SPRK Lightning Lab to connect a growing community of Makers, students, and instructors. I liked the SPRK-inspired builds they brought — a Strandbeest-style mecha powered by a Sphero turning some roller blade wheels, and a floating Sphero-powered robotic raft. Both projects were developed in the classroom.
I was also impressed with the new educational offerings from WowWee. Coji is a pint-sized anthropomorphic, tractor-treaded robot with a video screen face. Even pre-readers can program Coji using drag-and-drop emojis on your smart device! Coji can also be used without the app, reacting to physical stimulation such as tilting and shaking. WowWee is also working on educational versions of last year’s MIP balancing robot, in three different levels from elementary school up to high school and college.
Keep in mind, it can take time for a new product to build up the community and resources teachers often need to get started. So if you’re an educator like me, who needs a little more scaffolding before figuring out how to use a tech toy or tool in your classroom, it pays to keep an eye out for new and interesting products and see where they lead. The leap from intimidating to welcoming is getting shorter all the time.