It is that time of year again. Looking through websites for the perfect present for all those people on my Christmas list. For me, the best part of the entire experience is checking out all the wonderful toys that are out, and living vicariously through the kids that i buy them for. Typically i try to put some effort into buying toys that I feel have some productive value and are fun. I also try my best not to buy into the glitzy commercials and Hollywood productions that some toys have.
Reflecting on my own toys from my youth, there are only a handful of toys that really resonate with me. Most of these toys had aspects of construction. For example I loved GI Joe, but my clearest memory of interacting with them where building the vehicles with my dad, not actually playing with them. I loved playing with my Domino Rally Set, and create Rube Goldberg type creations. Then, of course there is the popular Lego construction kit that has withstood the test of time.
The bellow video, is far beyond I ever created with my Domino Rally set, but was very impressed!
It is unfortunate that toys like this aren’t extremely popular during the holiday season, and are overshadowed by other mainstream toys. I am convinced that my early interaction with constructivist type toys at early age is what spark my creativity and intrinsically motivated me to an unknowing exploration of engineering hidden within my play experiences. By no means am i against free play, and plain old fun, however we should all be aware of the positive rewards that children gain when given the opportunity to be a creator.
To list a few, constructionist toys allow children to:
- be producers: Our children are part of a trans-formative generation. Technology has made it easy to create media and share it with family and friends. Being able to create media is much different the consuming media. For example, when a child watches television they are consuming media, however using dramatic role play with a puppet theater allows them to create and share an experience making it more meaningful. Above all, being a creator allows for an opportunity to explore and test new ideas, and discover valuable things on the way.
- be creative: Today’s assessment centered school curriculum have swapped blocks for books in early childhood education, and ended most of their arts programs. With 21st century skills being a popular topic in educational reform, I’m skeptical that presenting children problems from a text book alone will allow them to be true problem solvers.
- learn from failure: Failure is such a taboo. Nobody wants to be a failure, right? I think this the wrong approach, and is counter productive to a child’s development, especially when it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Technology) based skills. Failure allows for some meaningful leaning opportunities of some of the most important skills that a child will need for problem solving: patience, debugging, self-regulation, and all the steps of the scientific method creating and testing hypothesis.
- collaborate: Learning to share ideas with a peer or an adult, such as dad or mom is very important. Not only does this promote teamwork, but it gives parents an opportunity to put down their TV remotes and cellphones, and get their hands dirty and interact with their kids. An adult being present offering mentorship and guidance also allows the child to push the limits of their knowledge and go deeper. This is what Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers
It is important to mention that these toys are not gender specific! Ever wonder why women are “presumably” worse in math and science then men? I will agree that there are some differences, however the main difference I see is in how we raise each gender, and the types off experiences we expose them to at an early age. That makes it a social problem not a gender issue. The other misconception is, just because a toy is pink and lavender should be a parents only gauge of weather a girl would like the toy. Believe it or not, there is problem with girls playing with blue and green toys as well. There is an easy solution to these problems, “Don’t be a toy discriminator!”
I decided to post up a short list of interesting toys, some high tech and other low tech, which allow for these experiences to take place. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments:
This is the obvious one. Companies like Lego, have been around for some time. Mega Blocks offers an alternative for younger children where choking hazards are a concern. There are so many different kits, that there is sure to be something that pokes a child’s interest and allows you to easily introduce a new type of play activity. If a child like space, get them a space kit, if she likes Dora get her a Dora Mega Blocks Kit! Most of these kits come with directions, which is great to get started, however be sure to toss the directions aside an allow your child to build a better spaceship, car, chair….whatever!
I sometimes help my daughter build furniture with mega blocks for her toys. I typically start by saying something like, “Wow, Elmo looks tired, let’s make him a chair so he could rest!” Although my daughter is only a year and half, with my help we could make something using my scaffolding to start. Eventually, when she is older and has developed more cognitive ability, I’ll minimize my role as designer and take her lead, offer guidance when needed.
This is another construction set that not only allows you to create, but also control various vehicles and functions via radio control adding another level of play and potential for engineering problem solving.
Make Do Kit
This is a really cool and inexpensive concept that i recently ran into. It is comprised of various connectors that lock, pivot, swing…etc, and has one safe and easy tool which allows you to poke holes in what ever material you would like to use. The material could consist of just about anything, from fabric, cardboard, paper cups, pretty much anything you could poke a hole through.
On my virtual window shopping travels I ran into this toy. Some ingenuous individual figured out a way to allow children to safely use tools that we as parent would typically not allow our children to play with, such as a saw. Using this kit children could safely cut a wood-like material (pressed foam) with a dull safe saw that eliminates any unfortunate accident that might occur if you gave a 5 year old a real saw and hammer to play with.
Great for meaningful role playing, this product really allows a child to realistically simulate using many of these tools. Looking forward for my little girl to fine tune her motor skills so we could work on something!
A parent could up the ante on their child’s Lego set by adding some electronics to the mix. With the help of constructionist pioneers such as Seymour Papert and MIT Media Labs, Lego introduced the Lego Mindstorm. Lego Mindstorm is a line of programmable robotics/construction toys, manufactured by the Lego Group. It comes in a kit containing many pieces including sensors and cables.
Now, not only could children create, but they could could program using a simple graphic based programing language to control sensors and motors that are part of their creation.
Here is a simple tutorial on the programing environment. Pay close attention to simple math concepts that they would be dealing with such as angular rotation and processual logic that many real world programmers use every day such as loops, functions (move, rotate), and, although not demonstrated in the video, conditionals (if this, then do that).
Check out the robotic arms that this kid made with his Mindstorm, and bit of creativity:
Picoboard and Scratch
If this seems a little bit complex for your child, no need to worry. Their are other similar programmable alternatives. My favorite, which i am hoping to buy soon is the Pico board. The Pico board, similar to the Lego Mindstorm allows the child to create and program an object. The difference is that there is minimal emphasis on robotics and more emphasis on creating craft-like object with everyday materials. The other major plus to this board is that it uses Scratch.
Scratch is a programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web. Here is a tutorial made by what sounds to be a kid, which always is a good sign. Scratch is available for free on the MIT Scratch website.
By adding the programming capabilities of Scratch, and the physical sensing capabilities of the Picoboard, children could really create some interesting projects. Bellow is a great introduction bu an educator from Australia.
Here is an example of a room security system that a young girl created using a light sensor and a flashlight.
I just wanted to stress the importance of allowing your child the opportunity to create as a life long experience. Imagination and creativity should be regarded in the same level as math and literacy. If we are looking for education to train our next crop of engineers, programmers, and inventors, we must also understand that there is close relation for creation and creativity.
Look beyond the mess that some of these activities cause. If it is that much of an issue, have the child play on a blanket. When they’re done pick up all the sides of the blanket and funnel them into a box. That works for plastic table clothes at picnics, why not your living room? I’ve been lucky to develop a routine with my daughter fairly early: we build, we destroy while yelling “oooh nooo!”, and then we put away….hoping it sticks.
While i was writing this, I took a break to play with my daughter and video taped the end of our play session. She was much less dramatic in her destroying probably due to her knowing i was recording her.
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