Category Archives: Education

Ready, Set, Play…Online!

I recently sat down with Co-Founder and President of ThinkFun, Bill Ritchie to talk about ThinkFun’s newest offering, Play Online. This new and improved section of the site features thousands of challenges for some of your favorite ThinkFun games like Laser Maze, Chocolate Fix and Solitaire Chess. While talking to Bill, I wanted to get his thoughts on the future of digital and physical products and how learning can be incorporated.

 

FullSizeRender 300x225 Ready, Set, Play...Online!

Co-Founder and President Bill Ritchie playing his favorite Play online game, Chocolate Fix!

 Q: ThinkFun is mainly known for their physical games; what inspired the addition of a more robust Play Online offering?

A: The Play Online program is very exciting because this is our first showing of a much larger idea that we’ve been working on for years.  When we launched Rush Hour in the mid 1990’s online versions of our games started to surface – some we supported and some of them were pirate knockoffs. What never felt right to us was an online game version where players only got to play a fixed number of challenges. That meant that players would play some and then leave, and we wanted them to keep coming back.

Our Play Online program is built as a BLITZ GAME, which means that each game comes with a reservoir of 1000 challenges, specifically selected by us. These are randomly served each time a new player comes to play a challenge; so they can play to their hearts’ content and never face the same challenge twice. Then we can put on our Admin hats and refresh the challenge reservoir with a new collection of challenges, so players will continually get a whole different ThinkFun gaming experience.

For each of the five new games in Play Online, we now have tens of thousands of challenges in our database. We continue to develop and refine to find which of these challenges are the most fun and which are the best to help you stretch your brain to build your thinking skills.

In terms of motivation, it was mainly us trying to give our fans what they wanted. We noticed players definitely wanted to engage with our games in digital form as well as in physical, hands-on logic puzzle form. We hope the end result is a “BOTH/AND” experience—a ThinkFun puzzle challenge experience that doesn’t just mimic our physical game play, but enhanced it in an inherently digital manner.

 

Q: What has been the reaction so far to the online offering?

A: People are definitely starting to find the Play Online section. It’s becoming one of our top pages! This feature is a great way for consumers to test our games out prior to purchase, so it’s perfect for the upcoming holidays.

 

Q: Which are the newest games? Which are updates or upgrades to older games?

A: Our newest Play Online game is Laser Maze, which has been a huge hit for us.  The physical version of the game sold out on Amazon at holiday 2013, is now selling better than ever on both Amazon and in-store at Target, nationwide. This is one that everybody really should try—we got the play experience just right with the Play Online version, all the brainwork plus a great payoff when you hit the FIRE button.

Screen Shot 2014 11 10 at 10.19.40 AM 300x195 Ready, Set, Play...Online!Rush Hour is our most famous game, and one that everyone seems to want to play in both physical and digital forms. We’ve updated this game so that it’s accessible to more people. We want everybody to experience the fun of getting lost in these wonderful challenges!

Solitaire Chess is worth mentioning here also. I describe it as “The distilled essence of chess” because it’s an exercise in both critical thinking and strategic thinking. Playing the online Solitaire Chess will give players a leg up at mastering the offline version of this marvelous puzzle.

 

Q:  Can you tell us about your plans for your digital games roadmap? What’s next for you?

A: We’re moving toward developing a more sophisticated set of digital challenges that will allow us to measure the effect on critical thinking skills in a more standardized manner. We want to help players to build mental models and to learn about the mathematical structures that underlie these puzzles. This wasn’t possible with physical games only, because we didn’t have access to how kids’ play progressed without a repeatable way to track their activity.

Coming in 2015, we will be launching our ThinkFun BrainLab Tournament Competition program along with ThinkFun University where we teach university level thinking skills to grade school kids. I’ve been working on this for more than 10 years now and it’s finally starting to come together. It’s all very exciting, and it really takes the ability to track progress to the next level.

Screen Shot 2014 11 10 at 10.08.31 AM 300x195 Ready, Set, Play...Online!

 

Q: For you personally, what is your favorite Play Online game by ThinkFun, and why?

A: I love them all but my personal favorite Play Online game has to be Chocolate Fix. We have put so much development energy and love into this one over so many years. Chocolate Fix is clever and fun, kind of like a mini-Sudoku style game, but underneath it is really just a manifestation of pure logical reasoning. In various experiments we have taught kids how to analyze the tree structure of a given challenge and also to understand different types of logical contradiction and how to describe your reasoning in the form of a mathematical proof. In one pilot program, we taught kids how to make their own Chocolate Fix puzzles that they could send out to their friends to challenge them. This was fun!

 

Feeling ready to give Play Online a go? Log on now!

 

 

Darn That Pesky Dragon!

Don’t be deceived by the tricks your eyes are playing on you! Recently, our very own Thinky the Dragon was featured in a BBC article that reflected on the life of Martin Gardner, a very influential man who puzzled the minds of many.

Gardner’s brilliance translated into creating optical illusions and paper-folding games, which brought about the eventual creation of Thinky the Dragon kit, a hollow face illusion and ThinkFun spokesdragon!

 

Screen Shot 2014 10 27 at 3.36.41 PM 261x300 Darn That Pesky Dragon!

So how does this illusion actually work? Our brains are fooled into believing that this image is following our every move. Don’t let this thought haunt you — the combination of lighting and our personal perception is not strong enough to visualize the hollow face. We can be misled by ambiguous images and visual distance cues. Not so scary after all, now is it? To learn more, Bill Ritchie dives deep into the mathematics and psychology behind the illusion.

You can make your very own Thinky the Dragon with a printable PDF and trick your friends this Halloween with this great illusion!

Gravity Maze is Here!

Gravity Maze is the follow-up to our much beloved Laser Maze game, and we’ve been pouring love and attention into it for well over a year. It was very important to us to get all the details just right. It’s here, I’ve been playing it, and it’s just what we intended.

Why We Made Gravity Maze

One theme I am starting to hear again and again is that Gravity Maze reminds people of classic marble races. We’ve even begun posting some homemade marble runs to our social channels to support all the nostalgia. Our version has more of a bite to it though. Gravity maze is not just any marble run or logic puzzle—it’s a complete, hands-on, playful, open-ended STEM engineering experience. We made the game to encourage the usage of visual perception, creativity, and deduction to find single solutions to 60 challenges ranging from beginner to expert. That said, it’s ultimately an immersive and tactile physical experience. Just as we’re targeting the digital natives of Gen Z (and younger) with Gravity Maze, we’re also hearkening back to the old Erector Set, that classic builder-based engineering toy from the 1950’s.

THEN NOW 300x168 Gravity Maze is Here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Helped Us Make Gravity Maze

So how did Gravity Maze get so awesome? Enter Wei-Hwa Huang, world puzzle champion and design master, and a good friend. Working with inventor Oliver Morris and a team of ThinkFun experts, Wei-Hwa breathed his magic into the maze challenges and into the underlying system architecture. So take note: When Andrea and I launched ThinkFun in 1985, we said that our mission was to translate the best ideas of the wackiest geniuses into simple puzzles and games to be played by all the boys and girls of the world. I think we nailed this mission with Gravity Maze!

Join us in Building our own Collection of Marble Runs on ThinkFun.com!

Throughout the Fall and Holiday season we’ll be building a growing collection of YouTube, Vine, and Instagram videos of our customers playing Gravity Maze on our site. The objective: To salute the old school marble runs with a new school logic game twist! We’ll be updating our progress regularly, so please check back in early and often. If you want to create your own Vine video and have us feature it, send us an email. I just did it…it’s easy!

Here is my own first shot at this project. What do you think? Is this the seed of a good idea? Could you do better? Then shoot us a video!

Until next time,
Bill

Reflections on: ThinkFun and Robot Turtles in the Media

wired pic 300x148 Reflections on: ThinkFun and Robot Turtles in the Media

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

throwback 300x201 Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

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!

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

blogPic 236x300 Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

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.

Logic Games liven up a High School math classroom!

Our Customer Service Mailbag (sounds more important than email account!) got a serious gem recently! The letter below comes from a teacher who has amazing things to say about using ThinkFun games in the classroom… 

 Logic Games liven up a High School math classroom!

To Whom It May Concern,

I just wanted to express my satisfaction with your company. I am a high school math teacher, and I see students of all types have trouble with basic problem solving skills every day.  These students are actually quite good at math most of the time, but they struggle with logical thinking and deductive reasoning. Your games are not only fun for the students, but let them develop those deductive reasoning skills no matter what skill level they are at.  Each game is well thought out and unique that it keeps the students interest.  My students love to try different challenges in their free time on each of the games.

Might I add, that if it were not for the durability and prices of the games, I would not have them in the first place.  I found your website helpful and easy to order.  I appreciate your support and helping students in schools, especially the Teacher discount code.  Without the discount and the great value compared to other companies games, I may not have had the opportunity to purchase what I have.  The games are built strong and not “cheap” so they last and aren’t easily broken.  I like the bags that help contain the pieces, and the rings on the card decks help keep cards from turning up missing.  Overall such a great value for teachers who have little money to spend on their classrooms in the first place.

I have placed several orders over the last few weeks trying to get a “class set” of games.  I need a few more as I have about 25 students at any given time, but I am seriously considering doing a Logical Thinking unit with your games and some logic puzzles and such with my pre-algebra class. I need to figure our a way to grade that, and I will put good use to your free games and activities as well. Anything I can do with them to help them think about reasonable answers and logic will help.

I just wanted you and your company to know what kind of impact you are making in schools and individual students.  I wish I would had discovered you sooner.  As a teacher, I like to know what impact I have on students as that is the drive that keeps me doing what I do well.  I thought you might like to hear that your games and brainteasers are very beneficial in a classroom, even for high school students.  Thank You!  Keep up the good work, and please continue supporting teachers and students across the country!

Southern Boone County Schools Math Teacher

Ashland, MO

 

Are you an educator who uses games to teach?! I’d love to hear your story – please share!

Also, on the discount referenced in this letter, Teachers save 20% with offer code:TEACHERS on the ThinkFun website! Feel free to share with friends who use games to teach!

ThinkFun Sponsors Design for Change Prize

The following guest post is shared by Sanjli Gidwaney, the Country Coordinator for the incredible Design for Change USA organization!

DFC 1024x193 ThinkFun Sponsors Design for Change Prize

The Design for Change USA (DFC USA) team is pleased to announce the students of Crazy Horse School from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, as the winners of DFC USA 2013! Their winning entry, Combating High Dropout Rates, has inspired people around the world. The students have received $500 worth of ThinkFun games, in recognition of their efforts!

The natural partnership between DFC and Think Fun is rooted in the belief that children learn best when they’re having fun. It is through critical thinking and team building skills learned during games and real world problem solving, which enable students to become better leaders and change makers of the future. DFC is incredibly thankful for the support of ThinkFun, and we are so excited that our student winners will benefit from $500 worth of ThinkFun games this year!

DFC kids ThinkFun Sponsors Design for Change Prize

2013 Design for Change USA Winning Team!

To learn more about Design for Change and the winning team, keep reading!

Design for Change is the largest global movement designed to give young people an opportunity to express their own ideas for a better world and to put them into action. Design for Change is a framework of design thinking principles such as Feel, Imagine, Do, Share, with supporting templates, exercises and a robust curriculum designed by Stanford Design School, IDEO, and Harvard’s Good Work Team. This year, Design for Change (DFC) reaches 40 countries and hundreds of thousands of youth, teachers, parents, and educators around the world.

How did the winning students impact their community?
The Lakota reservation in South Dakota faces a number of challenges including a limited number of healthy activities available for youth, 90% unemployment rate, a feeling of hopelessness and frequent substance abuse, and many students dropout before high school graduation.  In an effort to address this challenge, the students of Crazy Horse School used the DFC framework to host a community event, centered on activities such as sports tournaments, talent shows, a community dinner, and Lakota beading and quillwork.  In doing so, they believe they can restore a new sense of hope on the reservation, bringing the community together to discuss important issues.  They will use this event to show their classmates, how to replace unhealthy youth pastimes with exciting and fun activities in hopes of keeping them on track to graduate.

DFC kids2 ThinkFun Sponsors Design for Change Prize

How can I help?
The DFC USA team is raising funds to send three students and two teachers from the Crazy Horse School, to the ‘Be the Change’ Conference in India in September 2013.  To learn more, visit: designforchange.us/donate. Please help us spread the word!

Learn more about the DFC movement by checking out dfcworld.com

Move over Willy Wonka… GIANT Chocolate Fix at Math Plus Academy

Our friends at Math Plus Academy, an academic enrichment program with 2 locations in Ohio, recently took their love of ThinkFun’s Chocolate Fix game to a pretty sweet new level. Madison Corna, a Director at one of the centers, shares their experience and some great photos of GIANT Chocolate Fix in action!

We became inspired to create Life-size Chocolate Fix after playing Human Rush Hour. (We thought Life-size Tip Over might be a little dangerous!).  Anything that gets the students up and moving around is great because it causes them to be even more engaged with the problem solving process.  Students LOVE this huge life size version of the game!

We always set it up in a tournament style with three or four rounds and the team who solves the challenges fastest wins! There are few things in the world that are more rewarding that seeing a child get excited about math and problem solving.

The first two (in the gym) are from an event at a local elementary school that we did called Think Tank.

CF4 300x225 Move over Willy Wonka... GIANT Chocolate Fix at Math Plus Academy

life size choc fix 225x300 Move over Willy Wonka... GIANT Chocolate Fix at Math Plus Academy

The photos below are from a STEM event for girls that we do called IGNITE (Igniting Girls’ Natural Inquisitiveness in Technology & Engineering).

Math promo 2012 300x200 Move over Willy Wonka... GIANT Chocolate Fix at Math Plus Academy

CF21 300x200 Move over Willy Wonka... GIANT Chocolate Fix at Math Plus Academy

CF1 300x200 Move over Willy Wonka... GIANT Chocolate Fix at Math Plus Academy

We love seeing these big thinkers in action! Have you ever tried magnifying a favorite game?!

 

 

 

ThinkFun Games in Nigeria!

When traveling, I have an endearing habit (in my opinion, my husband may disagree!) of stopping in every single toy store we pass in search of our games. It is always a thrill to see ThinkFun games all over the world, and I always stop to take photographs and connect with a store employee.

This doesn’t always go over well, particularly the time I spotted some awful Rush Hour knockoffs in Hanoi Vietnam and tried very unsuccessfully to communicate. The message I finally got across was crystal clear, “I am a crazy woman who speaks no Vietnamese and loves hand gestures.”

Far MORE rewarding than seeing our games on shelves overseas are the photos of our games in the hands of kids all over the world! Our distributor in Nigeria recently shared some fantastic photos of Rush Hour, Swish, and Zingo! being played by students!

Rush Hour GHStars 300x225 ThinkFun Games in Nigeria!

2 young problem solvers take on Rush Hour Jr.

Swish GHStars 300x225 ThinkFun Games in Nigeria!

Students playing Swish

Zingo GHStar 300x225 ThinkFun Games in Nigeria!

Zingo!