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Wednesday, 22 May, 2002, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Digital toys to stimulate the mind
Mitchel Resnick is based in Boston
Resnick: Serious about toys
Mitchel Resnick, who runs the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at MIT's MediaLab, explains to BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida how technology can be used to create toys that will unleash a child's imagination.

Mitchel Resnick: We want to help the development of smart toys for children. We are not so much interested in making toys that think, but rather toys that help children think. We found that one of the best ways to help children learn is to provide them with new toys and tools that let them engage in creative activities, to design, create and invent new things with the new materials and new media around them.

Alfred Hermida: So how can this technology stimulate a child's imagination?

MR: If we give children the right kind of building blocks, it can spark their imagination. With traditional construction kits like building blocks, children can build castles or houses and learn about the structures of the world as they are built in the world. With new technologies, children can build things that come alive, that move, that react and interact. They can build something that doesn't just look like, say, a rabbit, but can actually behave like a rabbit, move around in the world, could have sensors to interact with the world around it.

AH: What can the children learn by doing this?

Lego programmable brick
Programmable brick at the heart of creations
MR: They can start by having a better understanding of how many things in the world actually work. If they build a little robot with a light sensor that flitters around a light, it gives them a new way of understanding when they see a moth fluttering around a light bulb of how it might be behaving, what rules it might be following. So, it gives both an understanding of the technological world around them and also it might give them an understanding of the biological world around them.

AH: Is there a danger in introducing technology too early in a child's life and blinding them with science?

MR: I don't think it is a matter of too early. There are always certain things that children can start using at any age. I don't see this as a replacement for the traditional materials and toys that children have played with. I don't want to push those aside. But we can always enhance the type of materials children play with.

Keep it simple

AH: A lot of this technology might seem too complicated and put off a lot of children. If you just gave them crayon and paper, everybody can use that. There is no obstacle to expressing yourself using crayon and paper.

Lego Mindstorm robot
Lego robots appear intelligent
MR: If we give children technology that is too complicated and they don't feel they can express themselves, then that is a mistake. What we want to do is to create technology that enables children to express themselves just as easily as they express themselves with crayon and paper. It's good to use that as the standard - look at the traditional children's toys, crayon and paper, building blocks. We need to make new technologies just as easy to use as those technologies.

We should remember that crayons, too, are a technology. Several hundred years ago, children didn't have crayons so that might have seemed like an advanced new technology but today it seems like a natural part of childhood. The new digital technologies might seem new and advanced today but in the future, if we develop them correctly, they will seem just as natural as crayons and paper.

AH: There are a lot of digital toys on the market, using computer technology. What do you make of what's available for children?

Mitchel Resnick of MIT MediaLabs
Resnick: Passionate about digital future
MR: I'm generally not very impressed with most of the digital toys on the market today. Many of them use the new technology in superficial ways, just to add some flashing lights or some beeping sounds. This might seem a little more exciting in the toy store but it doesn't have very much long-lasting value.

Other technologies are there just to make the toy come alive and make the toy seem intelligent but it doesn't provide new creative opportunities for children. We really need to focus on how we can use technology to support creative exploration by children. Most of the new electronic toys don't do that today but I think there are great possibilities for the future.

Infinite possibilities

AH: If you had to describe the ideal toy, that encouraged creativity, that used digital technology, what would that be?

MR: For a number of years we have worked in collaboration with the Lego toy company to create programmable bricks. So the same way you can use traditional Lego bricks and snap them together to build structures, with these new programmable bricks you can put them together to create things that behave in the world, that come alive, interact and react to other things.

We have seen children use these new programmable bricks in a wide variety of ways and that's one of the key elements to a good toy. It doesn't just get used in one way but in many different ways. Children can use the programmable bricks to build anything from an automated chocolate factory to creatures that interact with each other; or to build an amusement park ride.

AH: These bricks have proved immensely popular. They do seem to give a child the potential to do a lot more than they can with other toys.

MR: And it has also released an adult's imagination. A lot of these toys are being sold to adults, which is a good sign. It shows that a lot of adults also want to have these playful explorations. If we provide them with the right type of technologies, then they too can continue to play, explore, build and learn.

Teaching tools

AH: There is an educational element in all of this. As a child uses the toy, they are learning about quite complex digital matters.

MR: One of the things we have found over the years is that many of our best learning experiences come about when we are designing and creating things. If we want to help children learn, we need to give them new tools for designing and creating. That's exactly what these programmable bricks do.

It expands the range of things that kids can design and create and therefore expand the range of things they can learn in the process. In some cases, they might be learning things that are already in the school curriculum but it helps them learn it in a better way because it can be more motivating and be more connected to children's interests.

AH: What do you see next for these intelligent toys? Where do we go from here?

Lego robot car
Robots can be fitted with sensors
MR: First of all, we still need to go a long way in making them easier to use, to make it easier for children to create things that come to their imagination.

We want to create technologies that allow children to come up with a fantasy and then bring their fantasy into reality. We need to design the new construction kits so that children can more easily take their fantasies and turn them into reality.

Another direction we'll see is that in addition to using computer technologies, increasingly these toys will use communication technologies. Children won't just be creating one automated machine or one creature that moves around but create a whole flock of creatures that communicate with one another. We'll be using the communications revolution in addition to the computing revolution.

AH: That seems a wonderful idea - to be surrounded by creatures that you have created that can communicate with each other.

MR: In doing this we find that children learn a lot about communication in general and also human communication. As they program their robotic creatures to communicate with each other, they learn basic ideas about communication that can help them better communicate with others.

Mitchel Resnick was in London for an event organised by BBC Imagineering. You can find more details on the BBC Imagineering website.

See also:

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