Tag Archives: Sandbox Summit

TED 2011 – The Birth of a Word

My absolute favorite talk from this year’s TED Conference was given by MIT researcher Deb Roy, and I’m thrilled it’s just been posted!

Roy wanted to understand how children learn language in order to build robots than learn in the same way – and what better test subject than his newborn son!? To understand his son’s acquisition of language, Roy set out to capture every word the baby and his caregivers spoke and record the environment and events around which these utterances occurred. He wired his house with cameras and microphones, resulting in 200 terabytes (90,000 hours!) of audio/video data, or “the largest home video collection ever made!”

Roy gave special recognition to his grad students during his talk, and I can imagine the gratitude was well-deserved after the months of footage they waded through!

It’s all fun and games… until someone learns something.

Last week I attended the Sandbox Summit, a conference that explores how technology affects the way kids play, learn, and connect.  Fittingly, the Summit was hosted at MIT University with the support of the school’s esteemed Media Lab and the Education Arcade.  An incredibly diverse group of individuals came together to share their expertise, ask questions, play, and learn from one another in panel discussions, research presentations (teddy bear robots!), and hands-on workshops … I’m still buzzing and eager to share these ideas and continue the discussion with you!

One session touched on an issue that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time, and in sharing it here I hope to invite you, a member of our trusted family of educators, to join the conversation and help push this dialogue further.

The issue at hand is simply this… What role can games play in education?

This question emerged as part of a larger panel discussion on the resistance of educators to validate and embrace online games (i.e. Farmville, World of War Craft) as learning opportunities and invite them into schools.  Knowing these are hugely popular with students in their extra-curricular life, the professors on this panel argued that incorporating game elements into the school arena could not only help more students engage, but also would call out and validate the thinking skills honed through game play.

The major roadblock, these panelists explained, is the misguided argument against the curricular value of game play.  With budgets, resources, and instructional time constrained by the pressures of under-funding and state testing, it’s easy to see how these learning opportunities are quickly dismissed as “just PLAYING GAMES.”

At ThinkFun, our mission to bring games into the classroom to help build 21st century thinking and problem solving skills is often met with similar opposition… and when fun and play is stripped out of the curriculum, students are deprived of new ways to engage and stretch their thinking skills through meaningful play experiences.

I want to hear from you!

How can parents and concerned educators promote the curricular value of play?  How can we find creative ways to incorporate games into the classroom?  Have you had success or overcome opposition in using games as teaching tools?  Please share your thoughts and experiences by commenting here!

Exploring the Future of Fun at the Sandbox Summit!

I am thrilled to be attending the upcoming Sandbox Summit next week at MIT!  Now in its third year, this conference brings together innovators in children’s media, books, toys, virtual worlds, and education to explore the impact that emerging media platforms  have on how children play!

Below is a great post from Frog Design’s frogs on the road blog featuring an interview with the founders of the Sandbox Summit, Wendy Smolen and Claire Green.  Enjoy!

Serious Play at the Sandbox Summit

By Kristina Loring (May 7, 2010)

Children’s lives are infused with technology that aid their education and transmedia entertainment, allow for 24/7 connectivity and blend their virtual and real-world explorations. With an increased digital lifestyle, children’s toys play an increasingly influential role in shaping their understanding of the world around them. To explore the impact that emerging media platforms and tech has on how children play, the MIT Education Arcade will present the 2010 Sandbox Summit®, “iPlay, YouPlay, Wi iPlay: How Play is Changing Media and Media is Changing Play,” on May 18 and 19 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. design mind sat down with the founders of the Sandbox Summit, Wendy Smolen and Claire Green, to find out how toys are shaping our future creative thinkers and innovative leaders.

Q: This is the 3rd year of the Sandbox Summit at MIT. How did the Sandbox Summit begin?

A: After several years of sharing insights, drinks, and dinner with each other at Toy Fair and industry functions, we reached the (obvious) conclusion that the toy market was changing. So many of the traditional toys we had grown up with were being transformed by technology. Because we’re both proponents of basic toys and the power of play, we wondered aloud – and often – how the influence of technology would affect play. By the time dessert was served, Sandbox Summit was born. (WS)

Q: The conference brings together thought leaders from diverse disciplines to talk about children’s gaming, entertainment and television, digital literacy-through keynotes and interactive workshops. What is your favorite part of the conference?

A: Every conference is different.  I’m of the love-the-one-your-with school. To me, this Sandbox Summit at MIT is the best one we’ve ever developed. My favorite part is watching a conference evolve as we plan panels and speakers. It never ends up the way we first envisioned. It’s always richer.”  (WS)

Q: Research has long shown that play is an important part of early childhood development, but how kids play is usually defined by the tools given to them by adults. In what ways do you see children contributing to their own definition of play?

A: Infants play with their toes before they see the elaborate mobile hanging from their crib. Kids build sandcastles whether or not they have colorful molds to shape them. Play is second nature to kids. One of the most important ways adults can nurture this is by playing with them.  We want to promote toys and media that encourage kids to keep playing – and learning. Talking, laughing, sharing, and being physically active teaches them the skills they need to create their own play as they grow. Providing open-ended toys, learning how to solve puzzles, watching and talking about TV shows together, challenging each other on the Wii, reading books—these are all ways to foster creative, critical thinkers and players. (WS)

Q: Children are being increasingly exposed to new types of media across multiple platforms and contexts-what role do toys play in introducing children to this new way of understanding content?

A: It’s no secret; Toys are changing. A cell phone is now a game console, a video camera, a document creator. Expertise in using these play-tools hones a command of 21st century literacy skills. The most successful content producers understand that the magic of these new tool-toys is in the capability to invigorate new learners. (CG)

Q: Publications like The Economist and Fast Company talk about what we can learn from emerging markets in terms of innovation in design. Under the adage “necessity breeds invention” they argue that those countries are leading the way for sustainable new design that we haven’t reached yet here in the U.S. Do you see that happening in children’s toy industries? Do you think that children in emerging markets are becoming more creative because they employ their imaginations over a packaged play experience? What can we learn from them in terms of new ways to structure or un-structure play?

A: Toys that do all the work, do all the play. And that’s neither fun, nor instructive. Toy designers need to respect a child’s innate ability to imagine, create, and discover. Take a cue from the children; Products embedded with elaborate back-stories, or inflexible directions on how to play, with whom and when, will soon be cast aside. (CG)

Q: Establishing a sense of identity is important in giving kids confidence, self awareness, and developing empathy and understanding when developing social relationships. Online games, like Disney’s Club Penguin, are allowing kids to create avatars (mimicking many of the social networks like Facebook that teenagers and adults use). How do you think that these games influence a child’s understanding of their virtual vs. physical self? Do you think these games help kids become more social or more removed from their peers?

A. This is a very good question worthy of research. The games and play patterns are new enough that we’re just beginning to know the questions, let alone the answers. Sandbox Summit poses questions like this that prompt conversation and, hopefully, spark interest in a longitudinal study. (CG)

Q: Is the increasing integration of technology in children’s toys preparing children for a hyper connected, tech mediated world or is it hindering our children’s imagination and free form play?

A: The overriding mission of Sandbox Summit is to ensure that the next generation of players becomes active innovators rather than passive consumers of technology. By creating forums where multiple disciplines and media come together we’re hoping to keep creativity, imagination, and critical thinking in the forefront. Play is basic to all children, whether they’re in emerging markets or not. Incorporating technology into play is not a bad thing: Tech proficiency is a key element of 21st century literacy. However, we, and many experts, believe play should be balanced: structured and non-structured; physical, social, solitary, emotional; online and off. (WS)

If you are interested in attending the Sandbox Summit, registration is still open!

5 Rules For Evaluating So-Called Educational Toys

The following post is by Wendy Smolen.  Wendy is a regular guest blogger at Toy Whimsy and co-founder of Sandbox Summit®, a series of conferences that explore the synergy between play and technology.

The ABC’s of Educational Toys

It’s almost unavoidable. Every toy in your toddler’s playroom, from cell phone-shaped rattles to push toys to stacking blocks and caterpillars, seems to be decked out with alphabets. Is this part of our obsession to make kids smarter, faster, sooner? Should you specifically look for toys with ABCs? Or should you leave them on the shelf?

I talked to experts Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Professor in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less (Rodale Books) and Dr. Alice Wilder, Ed.D., Chief Content Officer for Kidos, Co-Creator of Think It Ink It Publishing, and Co-Creator and Head of Research and Education for the PBS show Super Why!

Based on their insights, here are 5 basic rules to educate yourself about so-called educational toys.

1.Having the alphabet on a toy doesn’t automatically make it educational.
PLAY IS HOW KIDS LEARN. Do I need to say it louder? Every toy has a purpose. A ball, a drum, a stuffed animal, a picture puzzle — they all teach. Sharing, cause and effect, nurturing, motor skills, spatial arrangement– these are the childhood basics. Whether a ball has the alphabet written on it or the teddy bear recites a poem is secondary to the play value of the toy itself. As kids age, alphabet recognition becomes more important as a pre-reading skill, but it should be fun, not work. And you should know what’s realistic for a kid to learn at each age and stage of development. “Children don’t really need to master letter recognition and letter/sound connections until kindergarten,” explains Dr. Wilder.  “Having said that, surrounding children with books and words, playing with words and letters through games, songs, oral storytelling, and writing to communicate messages will all build the foundation for pre-reading. Preschooler’s toys should stimulate their curiosity and imaginations to explore the world and draw connections so what they are playing becomes a richer, deeper learning experience.”

2. A “pretend computer” with a qwerty keyboard is not necessarily better– or worse — than an alphabetical keyboard.
I’m all for tech preparedness. Kids in the 21st century need to know how to master the technology that makes up their world. I guarantee kids will see and recognize qwerty keyboards long before they’re able to start texting. But when they are first learning letters and sounds, an alphabetical keyboard may have some advantages over a qwerty. “There isn’t a lot of research on qwerty keyboards, “ explains Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. “Since young kids initially learn their letters in order, both by seeing them and singing them, an alphabetized keyboard at first seems more logical.  Once kids recognize the letters, followed by the sounds they make, using a qwerty keyboard presents a realistic challenge. Then you can encourage them to, ‘find an A,’ which isn’t at the beginning of the keyboard. Think of an alphabetical keyboard as level one, a qwerty as level 3. It’s all about readiness.”

Dr. Wilder believes that young kids will be able to adapt their knowledge to a new way of presenting information without much difficulty and learning in the context of real life objects or technology makes a lot of sense.   “Learning the order of the alphabet is less important than knowing each letter, the sounds each letter makes and the fact that letters come together to make words that have meaning. The way that I see it is that I know how smart children are and they can learn anything if given an appropriate context and motivation.”

Bottom line: you need to know your own child’s level. As adults, our “toys” have both types of keyboards: alphabetizing on phones; qwerty on computers. Somehow, we’ve been able to adapt. Our kids will too.

3. Don’t expect a one-year-old to read.
“It all depends on how one defines “read,” laughs Dr. Wilder. “Children are learning literacy from the day they are born. Before they know and can understand language they can ‘read’ body language, tone of voice, and they begin to associate symbols for things that they want or need and respond accordingly.”

Learning the alphabet and letter/sound correspondences are certainly key steps every child needs to master to learn to read. Making the connection between letters and words is another critical leap. However, kids do this everyday by observing the world around them. Sitting on your lap while you read a book, riding in a car and seeing road signs and bill boards, recognizing a McDonald’s logo—these are all ways kids prep to read.

“Encouraging strong language skills is one of the most important lessons you can teach your young child,” stresses Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.  Reading, telling a story, or carrying on a narrative about what you’re doing are the most natural ways to do this. One-year-olds may love to look at books and turn pages, but very, very, few can actually read “words.”

4. Any toy that sings the ABCs is good.
“Singing songs, understanding the words sung in a song, and associating the words with meaning are the important components of singing any song,” says Dr. Wilder. When kids imitate their stuffed animal or toy truck singing the ABCs, the song is a mnemonic for remembering the letters. In that context, any toy that encourages singing is good. Most three-year-olds, and many younger kids love singing the Alphabet Song. “But we need to take the alphabet out of the context of order to help kids understand the real meaning of the song.”

5. Playing together doubles the fun — and learning.
You — the parent, caretaker, or grownup– are your child’s best (and probably favorite) toy. Of course you want him to learn the alphabet, read books, and be able to navigate technology in all kinds of ways. Toys that encourage kids to practice these skills are welcome additions to any playroom. Just don’t forget about the simple bouncing balls, baby dolls, blocks and bikes. These are just as necessary as toys with words and letters. But most important of all, know that when you talk, laugh, read, pretend, and share everyday activities with your child you reinforce the basic skills he needs to interact with the world in an age-appropriate and fun-loving manner. And that’s exactly what an educational toy should do.

I am THRILLED to be attending the upcoming Sandbox Summit in May at MIT! Click here to learn more about this conference!