Category Archives: engineering

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!

FIRST Robotics Tournament

This past weekend I volunteered as a judge in the New Jersey Regional FIRST Robotics Tournament.  Sixty one teams competed, coming from as far away as Brazil.  The competition was played in three-team alliances, alliances playing against each other to shoot soccer balls through goals with some significant wrinkles thrown in.   The tournament lasts two full days.  Team objectives are to win the tournament and go on to the national championship, and also to compete for more than a dozen FIRST awards celebrating both technical achievement and team attributes.  These are presented at closing ceremonies each day.

The game rules this year were more different from past years than normal, which meant that veteran teams had to change their robots more, to make more fundamental design decisions, than what they were accustomed to.  Early rumors from the practice field were that teams were struggling, that a lot of things weren’t working… and the first matches were indeed low scoring without much action.  Some of us wondered whether the changes had gone too far, if and how the players could adapt during the course of competition.

These issues hit the judges square on during our Saturday working lunch, when we caucused about that day’s engineering quality awards.  What to do with well designed machines that met most of the criteria for an award, but that hadn’t worked on the field?  Would they be performing by day’s end or not?

We needn’t have worried.  Teams scouted the field to learn best practices, shared information, worked together, analyzed and adapted, and the quality of play went through the roof.  In the end the judges struggled this year with too much excellence, we had more teams deserving awards than we had awards to give.

FIRST robotics 1 225x300 FIRST Robotics Tournament

We had grand debates as well.  Should the Entrepreneurship Award go to the young team with the big vision, the experienced team that was rededicating itself to greater service or the team whose written business plan most clearly articulated their plan?  Should the Quality award go to the simple machine that performed at outstanding levels, the more versatile robot that had mastered several game skills or the robot that had outstanding machine quality features but was average on pit quality & team integration?

In the end it was an outstanding experience all around.  If you want to discover the best of young America, get to know more about FIRST!