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ThinkFun’s CEO Bill Ritchie on 21st century thinking and gameplay
Updated: 21 min 27 sec ago

Reflections on: ThinkFun and Robot Turtles in the Media

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 07:09

I’m extremely excited to share that we’ve been popping up a lot in the media lately, so things have been kind of hectic—but in the best way possible. So without seeming overly self involved (*ahem*), I would like to share a few of the more interesting news items here, and then add some supplemental info about one of the articles. I can’t help it– I’m proud of our games! And I’m thrilled that they all seem to touch on the theme of igniting the mind through play. Sound familiar? It should—it’s our mission.

Swish in The Atlantic

On July 16, The Atlantic published the article How Family Game Night Makes Kids Into Better Students. The author, Jessica Lahey spotlighted our game Swish, and its benefits for kids with impulse control and working memory deficits.

Within the article, Lahey consulted with Dr. Bill Hudenko, child psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, who elaborated on which executive function skills Swish can most benefit:

Children with executive functioning deficits often struggle with the heavy working memory demands of mentally rotating the cards and sequentially identifying additional card matches. This game also is particularly helpful for developing an appropriate balance between impulse control and increasing processing speed as the child is trying to be the first to identify a “swish.”

Robot Turtles (and the history of ThinkFun) in Wired
Then, last week on Thursday, the Twittersphere really blew up with mentions of ThinkFun when Wired published this article, The 75-Year Saga Behind a Game That Teaches Preschoolers to Code, by Cade Metz. The title does a fantastic job of surfacing the major themes of the article: My family’s tech-centric lineage, and our vision of Robot Turtles as the hero product in the evolution of gameplay as a technique for teaching the fundamentals of code. I touched on what Robot Turtles can teach children in my first post on this blog. If I’ve piqued your interest at all so far, please do take a minute to read the Wired article. It’s very thorough and entertaining.

How we’ve changed the game
As Cade Metz points out in the Wired article, we acquired Robot Turtles from Dan Shapiro. But we didn’t stop evolving the product, and this is where the supplemental info I alluded to in the intro begins…I’d like to unbox this topic a bit further.

Of course, once we acquired Robot Turtles we made changes to enhance game play with new instructions, clearer graphics, more durable cards, bug tiles instead of cards, and a sturdy box for better storage. But that was just the beginning. ThinkFun has made Robot Turtles a flagship product in its support for Kids and Coding. We’ve added several dimensions to the game and our thinking. I want to touch on some of these upgrades:

• Programming as Storytelling: Using our “Adventure Quest” generator, parents and kids can submit board presets and stories that make being a Turtle Master kid more fun than ever. We also include some board presets to spark your imagination.
• Using Programming To Model Parent-Child Interaction: In our instruction manual, we use our teaching experience to help families make the most of time together with Robot Turtles by providing kids instructions about programming and parents instructions on how to execute their kids commands in a fun, engaging way.
• Community Interaction: We evaluate submissions and post the best for use to the Quest Library.
• Kids & Coding Resource: We’ve aggregated an amazing list of people with products, programs, gatherings and more to make sure that Robot Turtles is just the beginning of your child’s introduction to coding.
• Partnership program: Recognizing that the employers of tomorrow want the children of today to have these skills, ThinkFun is actively donating games and activities to partners. Contact us if you’re interested.
So now I’ll put the question to you, our community: Where would you like to see game enhancements and extensions? Please tweet us @Thinkfun or email us at Info@thinkfun.com with your feedback. We’re listening!

Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 20:29

Andrea and I back in the day wishing BinaryArts (ThinkFun’s original name) good luck at its launch.

Hello World! This is my debut post on the SmartPlay.com blog, so I figured I’d take a moment to introduce myself, share a little bit about what inspires me, and set some intentions about what you can expect from my posts moving forward.

A Little About Me

Some of you may know me as the CEO and Co-Founder of Thinkfun, the world’s leader in addictively fun games that build 21st century thinking skills through play. But I’m guessing that most of you may not know WHY I got into the game industry.
My lovely and inspiring wife, Andrea Barthello, and I founded ThinkFun on a dream. We wanted to change the world by translating the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers and inventors into simple toys that could be appreciated by children of all ages. This was way back in 1985, and our name back then was BinaryArts (see our throwback photo that accompanies this post for visual aid).

In 2003, we changed our name from Binary Arts to ThinkFun and updated our mission to focus on the learning-through-play perspective. But not that much has changed since then. We still want to change the world, we just want to do it through play.

Lately, what I’m really enjoying is just how organically our newest games support some of the forward-thinking philosophies and curricula of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and STEAM (Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements) communities. If you don’t know much about these organizations yet, take a look at this video from Georgette Yakman, Founder/Teacher of STEAM.

A Little About Robot Turtles

So how does ThinkFun pay off our claim to ignite minds through play? Let’s take Robot Turtles as an example. The game sneakily teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 3 and up and is the perfect expression of ThinkFun’s mission.

Robot Turtles players learn how to break one big problem into small steps, to think ahead, to work backwards, to look for patterns and to keep trying to fix their “bugs.”
 Playing is a lot like coding because:
• When a child lays down her cards, she is writing code.
• When a child rearranges his cards to fix what didn’t work, he is debugging.
• When a child discusses her strategy, she is commenting her code.
• When a child asks a parent to move the Turtle, he is running a program.
• When a child plays a Function Frog, she is executing a subroutine or a function.

I want to dive deeper into the mechanics here, but I’ll just share this 20 second video on how to play Robot Turtles instead, and wait until next week’s post to unpack the topic further.


A Little About What to Expect as the Blog Evolves

I plan on writing about once a week from now on, focusing on my take on the whacky world of creativity, problem solving and any general out-of-the-box thinking. I REALLY want to hear from you all as time goes on. What do you want to hear more about? What should I shut up about?

I’ll also reach out to some friends and colleagues to guest blog for me on these subjects from time to time, and I’ll do some “Greatest Hits” posts that bundle up a few of the fantastic posts from my SmartPlay blog predecessor, Charlotte Fixler.

Onward!

Robot Turtles + Imagination!

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 12:10

ThinkFun’s newest game has inspired some very clever cartoons from a young Robot Turtles enthusiast – the imagination is clearly whizzing here, and I just had to share!

First up… turtles with amazing powers face off!

“Wind vs. Speed… Laser vs. Helicopter!”

 

This next story is about a four-eyed turtle… love this!

She waited and waited. She was cold.

She sat and sat…

Then, she knew she needed glasses.

The end.

 

And finally… a super speedy turtle race… on your marks, get set, GO!

Want to extend Robot Turtles for your own turtle enthusiast? Check out the online Adventure Quest generator tool and see how easy it is to create and share your own turtle-inspired adventures!

Here’s an example of  a great Quest already up in the online library… we can’t wait to see what you create!

 

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 08:24

Thinking Skills: Sigmund Freud Meets Apple Pie

For years I have been ranting about the American education system, how murky and ill prepared it is to consider new ideas. I gave a TEDx talk about this in 2012: one of my slides was a cartoon I had made to describe how profoundly confused the situation is.

Don’t worry if you don’t get this cartoon… you’re not supposed to. The idea is that it’s an enigma… something so ingrained you’re not sure if you are allowed to think that you don’t understand it.

The biggest thing gnawing at me the past few years has been the “HOW” question… this is such an important topic, how could things have gotten to be this way?

And so I was very happy to find the answer lurking inside an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, about Bill Gates and the new Common Core education standards.

Says Gates: “The funding, in general, of what works in education… is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. … As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.”

So why is it that I’ve had these murky, queasy feelings about education? Because it turns out the American Education system has the lowest R&D funding of any field of human endeavor! This starts to make sense now.

OK then… with this post I’ve dug a little bit into what the problem is. Next look for some solution ideas.

And do read the Washington Post piece. It turns out that Gates is using his millions to rebuild the entire USA education system, makes for a fascinating and revealing read.

Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication & Coding Skills

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 09:48

The following post is shared by speech-language pathologist Eric Sailers of Expressive Solutions, a company that develops apps for learners with special needs.  In this post, originally posted here, he shares some phenomenal insight about the power of game play to target and support specific communications skills.

If you are looking for a fun way to target social communication skills, as well as beginning computer programming, Robot Turtles is a great new board game you can play with your students (with or without autism). Robot Turtles requires players to use simple commands to move their turtles to capture a jewel on the game board. When students give commands, they are replicating the process computer programmers use to give instructions for a computer to execute. Games, in general, provide opportunities for social communication; Robot Turtles in particular involves specific interactions between the game players that enable more opportunities for social communication. For students who show an interest in games and computers, playing Robot Turtles can be a highly engaging way to practice social communication.

During game play, it is easy to provide students with opportunities to practice five different social communication skills:

1) Perspective taking

As turtle masters, students take the perspective of their turtles on the game board in order to decide which way to move. If they were to take their own perspectives, players may not move in the intended direction; success in the game depends on the ability to make decisions based on a different perspective.

2) Turn taking

Students also actively take turns throughout the game. Not only do they have to wait for the other turtle masters to complete their turns, but students do not actually move their own game pieces. The adult overseeing the game, otherwise known as the turtle mover, is in charge of executing the moves on the game board based on student commands.

3) Eye contact and body language

Since turtle masters don’t move their own pieces, they must clearly communicate their commands to the turtle mover. This offers a good opportunity to practice politely giving directions, as well as utilizing eye contact and body language to effectively communicate and acknowledge the turtle mover.

4) Following directions

In return, the turtle mover may communicate directions for the turtle masters to follow. The turtle mover also ensure players are aware of and adhere to the rules of the game.

5) Making comments

Throughout game play, students can be encouraged to make positive comments directed specifically to other turtle masters. For example, a student could say, “Nice move. I like how you did that!” when another player makes a good move in the game. In Robot Turtles, the goal is not to have one winner; all students keep playing until they achieve the goal for that specific level. Establishing a positive atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to be successful creates a great opportunity for modeling and practicing comments.

Robot Turtles can be played with children as young as four, all the way up to middle or high school. The game has several levels so it is easy to adapt game play based on student age and experience with the game. The upper levels of the game require sophisticated logic and analytical skills to complete the challenges, while the simple levels introduce children to basic logic. Either way, social communication skills can be targeted in various ways throughout the game.

The Gift of Coding

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 07:52

Since ThinkFun announced the launch of Robot Turtles – the board game that teaches coding to preschoolers – some fantastic conversations have emerged about the importance of coding literacy for the very youngest learners. The theme that’s tied these discussions together has, interestingly, been less about the hard skills of coding, and more about the thinking processes that develop organically as young minds are taught to think like a programmer.

I love this quote by game’s inventor Dan Shapiro, who explains that learning to code is like a gift we can give our children:

“There are two types of people in the world. People who think of computers as their masters and people who think of computers as their helpers. The future is going to be written by programmers and read by everyone else. I want to give my kids the gift of being able to express themselves through programming and the power that comes from being able to write software.

It’s not that I want them to be programmers. Being able to program will make them better at whatever they do. Having that skill is like being a great writer, having a love for learning, or having a deep foundation in mathematics. No matter what you do, programming unlocks doors for you, helps you express yourself, and helps you become more successful in anything you decide to do. It’s a gift you can give to your kid.”

As we’ve worked through what coding means in the context of game play, it’s become clear that Robot Turtles supports critical thinking skills that go way beyond programming. Through play, children learn how to break a big problem into small steps, make a plan, work backwards, find patterns, and identify and fix “bugs” – these life skills will serve them far beyond game play!

To help clarify the links between playing with Turtles and learning to program, this document breaks down the ways in which this game teaches code – and a heck of a lot more!

 

Robot Turtles are on the way!

Fri, 04/25/2014 - 08:45

I am SO excited to share that the much-anticipated Robot Turtles games are on their way… we’re counting down the weeks until they arrive!  The best-selling board game in Kickstarter history, Robot Turtles is designed to teach coding skills to preschoolers.  Check it out!

Haven’t ordered your copy yet?  Get on it!  All pre-orders receive a *free expansion pack* that features:

  • 12 Pre-set Frog Favorite Cards
  • 32 Bonus Collectible Jewel Tokens
  • 10 Adventure Quests

Order now, and here’s a sneak peek at the package that will be headed your way in June… opening up a box of awesome is a pretty sweet way to kick off the summer!

 

 

 

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