We explore the role of SmartToys in equipping children with the skills they will need in order to successfully navigate a world of ubiquitous technology. Special attention is paid to how toys that are currently on the market can be utilized to develop computational thinking. Finally, we give toys to consider buying for your children this holiday season!
Imagine a future where artificial intelligence informs a physician’s diagnosis by listing the possible ailments from which a given patient might be suffering, or provides lawyers with precedent-based argument strategies for a difficult case. A future where robots assist electricians and plumbers with home repairs and maintenance. A future where augmented reality interfaces allow for resources to be allocated by swiping a finger in mid-air, Tony Stark style, and immersive virtual reality experiences provide the most convincing entertainment yet known to humanity. How do we prepare our children to be emotionally, mentally, physically well-adjusted human beings in this world?
According to researchers at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a non-profit coalition of leaders in business, education, and policy, the following “7C Skills” will be paramount to successfully navigating this not-so-distant world:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Creativity and innovation
- Cross-cultural understanding
- Communications, information, and media literacy
- Computing and ICT literacy
- Career and learning self-reliance
SmartToys that cultivate a sense of curiosity and play and through making, building, and creating offer intriguing possibilities for endowing children with the skills they will require, to the best of our knowledge, in their future reality. Ultimately, the toys we have children play with build their capacities and skills for the world ahead. Everything from the look and feel of the toy to the way in which it asks children to engage with it shapes their worldview. And when technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that adults cannot accurately predict what the world will look like in 20 years, it makes sense to teach children how to use digital tools in myriad situations or, in other words, to optimize pedagogy for adaptability.
It is for this reason that the 21st Century Skills listed above are less concrete topics and more meta-abilities that will be useful in all foreseeable futures. These meta-abilities are especially important considering estimates that 85% of jobs in 2030 do not yet exist. As such, the idea of training children for specific jobs is a bit like shooting a bow and arrow at a target while blindfolded — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense! The idea of training children to approach the world in a critical, creative, computational manner, however, is rather attractive. The trick is in finding a way to do this in a fun, engaging way and SmartToys can help us playify the learning of these 21st Century Skills at all levels of cognitive development.
A Look at the Market
Depending on the source, estimates of the overall Toys market range from $40B (2015) to $166.2B (2024). The SmartToys market is estimated as low as $5B (2017) and expected to grow up to as much as $15.5B by 2022. There are three primary drivers of growth in the SmartToys market:
- growing disappointment of children towards traditional toys and games
- increasingly digital lifestyles of consumers and exposure to technology at an early age
- app integrated toys & toys that can be controlled by smartphones and tablets are emerging as the new frontiers of growth in Smart/AI market
We at Educapital decided to investigate the computational thinking and robotics segment of the SmartToys market. In the course of this analysis, we looked at 36 products from 13 companies, including big players like Lego and SpinMaster and exciting entrants like Osmo and LittleBits. Of the companies evaluated, 2 were public, 2 had raised $100M+, 3 had raised between $35M & $80M, and 6 had raised less than $5M or did not have financial information available.
The offerings were analyzed across price and age range in order to identify unique, must-have, and nice-to-have characteristics. We noticed that 4–8 age products more likely to be screenless, 8–11 are more likely to be about constructing robots, & 11+ are more likely to be about freeplay/creative invention.
How to Evaluate the Quality of SmartToys
When we think about toys, we need to think about what parents are looking for out of a toy. There are five main things.
They want something that is Effective at developing their child
They want something that is Intuitive enough for a child to play with
They want something Engaging for their child
They want something that is Safe for their child to play with
They want something that has all of the above characteristics at an Affordable price point
There you have it! A simple rubric for assessing the quality of a SmartToy in which each aspect can be both a reason to buy and a reason not to buy a given toy.
A Few Open Questions
How can we mitigate the risk that training children to be comfortable thinking with computational paradigms does not just enable them to perpetuate existing inequalities (along the lines of class, gender, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.) in an ever more structured, efficient manner?
How can the benefits of SmartToys for 21st Century Skills be made available to all children where formal curricula have not adapted to reflect the importance of these skills?
What do we lose by giving kids toys with specific teaching objectives? Do we teach them that things only work if used as designed? & thus, limit their imaginations and creativity?
Finally, of course, a parental paranoia that bonds generations of caretakers: screentime! Does exposure to mobile screens, which are used by many SmartToys, negatively affect child development? And, if we don’t conduct a proper longitudinal research, will it matter or will it be more efficient to just build a world tailored to the cognitive workings of this generation? Or, to be safe, should we highlight companies that create low-cost, engaging, screenless experiences that help kids understand the digital & virtual from the confines of the physical?
Educapital looks forward to following and contributing to the conversation around toys, curricula, and 21st Century Skills. We believe that education as is will not sufficiently prepare today’s children for tomorrow’s world but we think that, as we playify learning, toys can and will play an important part in shaping humanity’s future.
Finally, with all of the above in mind, we are happy to give our favorite toys for the holiday season!
- Sphero SPRK+ Education (suitable for age 8+) : a programmable ball with education at its core that can be utilized in countless ways. Use with the Sphero Edu app to discover a world of activities for robotics, coding, and STEAM and to join a community of parents, educators, and makers around the world.
- Osmo (suitable for ages 5–12) : Osmo’s wooden pieces have been referred to as “Legos for coding” which tells you everything you need to know about the flexible and engaging nature of this toy. With aesthetically pleasing games that teach everything from coding to business to nonverbal communication, you can bet your little learner will discover all kinds of new knowledge and have fun doing it!
- KinderLab KIBO (suitable for ages 4–7): a robotics kit that allows children to build, program, and decorate their own personal robot! All play is screenless and kids can become familiar with concepts of coding, building sequences, and design in a completely screenless manner by using wooden pieces that give KIBO a warm, approachable feel.
- ThinkFun Robot Turtles (suitable for ages 4+): the most-funded Kickstarter of all-time, Robot Turtles is a coding board game in which every move teaches a programming skill. And, for those who prefer, the game is totally screenless!
Anoopdeep Bal - Intern