Looking for a hi-tech gift for a child? Think of a playground, not an arena

Original author: Marina Umaschi Bers
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Looking for a new high-tech gift for a child for the holidays? All this variety will easily turn the head. Sparkling boxes, colorful applications and pretty plastic robots promise to improve learning outcomes if your child plays with this, this and this.

You are likely to believe this. Perhaps if your baby is playing with a robot, then she will learn how to program. Maybe if a child plays computer games or this application, it will develop reading and writing skills or mathematical skills.


The KIBO robot, developed by the research team of Marina Bers, uses real cubes instead of screen ones and cleverly mixes them up, helping children learn to program in a game form. Photo by Marina Bers. CC BY-ND

If you like technology, you probably think it would be a good idea for a child to be carried away as early as possible. If it comes to that, studies show that by the age of ten stereotypes have been formed about who is good at mathematics and science, technology and design. It is important to take the lead , arousing curiosity when they are small, to counter the formation of stereotypes. Subsequently, these doors will not prematurely slam shut before them when they have to choose a field of study for study or profession.`

However, a cursory examination of all these high-tech toys in stores in search of the very one that will support the nascent TREE of knowledge in a child can be confusing. I created a new metaphor “playground versus playpen” in order to have a correct idea of ​​the best ways to interact with technologies that are possible in the process of development. As soon as new gadgets, robots, apps, and games are released, addressing this metaphor can take you beyond the bells and whistles to focus on how a technical toy can help learning and development.

Pampering or fascinating research

In my last book "Coding as a Playground"(“Programming as a playground”) I invited readers to recall their childhood. Children could run, explore, invent new games, participate in imaginary plays, communicate, interact and solve problems together, make their own choices.

Now think about the children's arena. Safe, fenced on all sides of the space is drastically different from the playground. Manege is a lack of freedom for experimentation, lack of independence in research, lack of opportunities for creativity and lack of risk. There you can seat a child to pass the time.

While playgrounds are unlimited, playpens are closed. Playground helps, while playpen impedes important aspects of human development.

Unfortunately, from the point of view of age development, many of today's technologies for young children are playpens, not playgrounds.

Of course, computer games, like playpens, deprive children of physical activity. But the metaphor digs even deeper. Some computer games are labeled as educational because they develop fundamental skills and teach shapes, colors, letters, sounds, and numbers.

Most programs offer assignments with correct and incorrect answers, and, therefore, do not contribute to problem solving and logical thinking or research and creativity. Most robots for children have pre-completed tasks that need to be solved, and in the process learn how to program. All these are examples of high-tech playpens - they are limited and do not fall under many important parameters of the healthy and favorable development of children.

Six characteristics to look for

For two decades of research, I have developed a basic theory called Favorable technological development to guide parents, teachers and researchers in search of differences between high-tech sites and arenas.

This theory is built around six favorable characteristics that can be promoted through the use of technological playgrounds. These features include:
  • content creation
  • creation
  • line selection
  • communication
  • cooperation
  • community building

These six characteristics can be cultivated on the playground, as well as supported by robotics, virtual worlds, programming languages, applications, regular and plot-role-playing games.

However, it is not enough to read the description on the box. It is important to understand what kind of experiences children will experience when interacting with technology.

Look for technologies that will attract children as creators, not consumers. This means constructor robots, applications and computer games that allow them to be creators, artists, programmers and designers. Try to avoid pre-prepared solutions that target a specific set of skills and promise to help children improve their fundamental knowledge. Remember that technological playgrounds should also be fun!

In the DevTech research group , which I lead at Tufts University, we specialize in a specific kind of technological playground: programming the external conditions for children from 4 to 7 years old. Our research shows that by learning how to program, children take on the role of creators, not ordinary consumers. They are able to use all the above characteristics.

For example, together with Mitch Resnick in MIT Media Lab we created a free application for programming ScratchJr. This is a playground where problem solving, emotion research and decision making are stimulated. It is extremely important that we create a clear connection between the programming lesson and the game format of the process.

On the playground, children can play in the sandbox, swing on a swing, or slide down a slide, or just run. Similarly, you want to find a technical toy that will allow children to participate in a variety of different creative and emotional activities. For example, in addition to programming, an application can allow you to create and change characters, record and play your own voices and sounds. Arena, by contrast, can allow to overcome levels only when they solve specific problems or choose the correct number or letter.

Educators do not take children exclusively to the playground. There are other places to visit and other skills to develop. But when you want to get new technologies for children, look for tech-platforms, not tech-playpens.

About the author of the article: Marina Yumaschi Bers (Marina Umaschi Bers) is a professor of research on childhood and human development, a freelance computer science teacher at Tufts University (USA).

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