Nov 21 2014

5 Tips for Teaching in the Age of the Connected Toy

Centuries after alphabet blocks were on the cutting edge, how do we harness the power of learning through play in the digital age?

What is the difference between a toy and a teaching tool? It is partly design, but mostly application.

Looking around a classroom, I can find many things that perform double-duty as both teaching tools and toys. From Lego blocks to math manipulatives, it is clear that toy companies are attuned to the power of playful learning.

In his 1693 book Some Thoughts Concerning Education, the philosopher John Locke noted that a set of blocks with letters on them allowed kids to play while learning. This is a legacy we can still connect with today. More than 300 years later, what are the possibilities of play in the support of education? In a learning space crowded with screens, what is the role of the connected toy? With mindful integration, we can get kids tinkering, exploring and making by invoking the power of play. This isn’t about the single function of Speak & Spell or the foreboding complexity of Lego Mindstorms. This is also about finding tools that connect with the skills that students are already developing, such as those in science, technology, engineering and math.

I’ve been working with Sphero Robots and STEM curriculum. I have started with the published lessons on the SPRK website, but these have me thinking about lessons I can design on my own. I am not afraid of building my own curriculum, but I don’t want to waste time. I want kids to learn math, science, English, history — all of the things they need to learn. I am really impressed with how engaging toys like Sphero are. My job as a teacher is to design useful challenges for students to leverage that.

When beginning to work with a connected toy, the potential can be overwhelming. Here are a couple of tips for finding the path to the pedagogy of the connected toy:

  1. Learn one thing. There are many robots out there. Right now, I am learning how Sphero Robots can work to support learning. I hope these lessons are transferable to other robots and to connected toys yet to be developed.

  2. Learn one thing about one thing. It turns out Sphero Robots can do many things, even though they are relatively simple. They have a very accessible entry point but seemingly limitless potential. There are examples of Spheros being used to control drones as well as to light up and “dance” when you receive a tweet. I don’t need to know all of this to teach with them. I might learn it later, but for today, I just need to understand the consumer-side programming apps.

  3. Set some rules. All of the best games have rules. Set some, and then hold your students to them. There are many ways to play with robots, but learning needs some structure and accountability.

  4. Fail forward. Try things, and be OK with it if they don’t work. Find a space to crash-test ideas before deploying them in the classroom. I love my after-school coding club; it is my pedagogy sandbox.

  5. Connect with a community. Share your journey by reaching out to people already using the tool and connecting with the company behind it. The best companies out there are already working to figure out how to support teachers and learning.


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