I love toys and making fun things. When I look at my own child and other people’s children, I notice one common thread: they have way too many toys. I wanted to know if it was possible to create a toy system that could grow with the child. A system that has the same shell or interface, but can change and adjust with the child’s growth.
For example, iPods have the same shell, but within iPods are a plethora of games so that essentially the iPod would be the only toy a child would need. However, I let my son do whatever he wanted to do all summer, which was playing video games and watching TV all day long. I definitely noticed some adverse effects. He lost focus. He had trouble paying attention. He became even more hyper active. He asked “non-smart” questions. I could actually see his brain turn to mush. I knew that this toy system needed to not be screen-based. It needed be something tangible because people learn better when they touch things. But at the same time, it needed to be modern.
Modular and sustainable, BLOCKUITS is a toy system that can grow with the child by introducing more complex electronics concepts in various stages. The BLOCKUITS system has fun and surprising interactive experiences that keeps children engaged.
I began my year-long journey with a brain-dumping activity, which consisted of writing down anything that came to mind, no matter how random. From that, I categorized my words, or ideas, and looked for patterns.
Methodologies are the “how,” the method, or the approach I take in order to solve a problem or reach a goal. In this case, the problem is the problem my thesis project will solve. I also see methodologies as a path I can map out to help me reach my goals.
First, I wrote down what sort of methodologies I would be using for my thesis, then I categorized my sticky notes into three sections – ideation, development and analysis.
My usual approach is that I start with a core concept. From that concept I build upon it, little by little, taking baby steps. Then I go in and fill in all the little gaps that are lagging. But because this is thesis, I wanted to try something new. I explored outside of my little bubble, and looked into things that may not even be related to my overall goal.
For instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about adding a narrative aspect to my toy, so I will do some research on narratives. I’m also thinking about maybe focusing my toy more on structures, so I want to research architecture. So from that, all these little components outside my bubble can relate somehow to my core concept. I’m not sure yet what the other bubbles around my core bubble are, but I want to keep exploring outside of the obvious.
The research process consisted of searching for precedents – both online and off. Many times I would talk to people about my thesis concept, and they would suggest precedents to research. Sometimes I even had to buy the precedents. For research, of course!
Snap Circuits are educational kits that teach children about how electricity works using metal snaps. Snap Circuits are a closed-project toy, where children build projects like FM radios and rovers from schematics. The Snap Circuits system is highly structured and successful at modeling circuitry concepts. Nevertheless, Snap Circuits accommodates neither creativity nor expression, which is one of the central affordances of Blockuits
littleBits is an open source library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets for prototyping and play. What differentiates littleBits from Blockuits is that littleBits is project- based. Users can’t simply explore, but need to have a project in mind to execute. The motions of construction are a form of artistic expression, and are as natural to children as drawing.
Cubelets is a robot construction kit that “combines sensor, logic and actuator blocks.” The blocks are magnetic and can be snapped together to create different variations of robots. Cubelets are extremely similar in both concept and interaction to Blockuits. However, Cubelets focuses more on the mechanical, robotic behavior of the blocks while Blockuits focuses more on the free artistic form of children’s creations.
Woodland Wiggle is a large-scale, interactive exhibit housed within the Royal London Children’s Hospital. The exhibit, designed by Chris O’Shea and Nexus Interactive Arts, invites children to play within a storybook world. The play space, designed by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture and graphic designer Morag Meyerscough, features oversized furniture and creatures. With Woodland Wiggle, the experience and large scale of the exhibition are what categorize it as a precedent.
Imagination Playground is a “mobile play system made up of big blue blocks in many unique shapes and sizes.” Children use the blocks to construct both indoor and outdoor spaces. They are able to make objects or build structures. Imagination Playground provides a very open-ended play experience. However, it lacks the electronic component that is one of the foundations of Blockuits.
What differentiates Blockuits from the competitive set is that Blockuits lie at the intersection of ultra-techy toys (Snap Circuits and littleBits) and open-play structural toys (Imagination Playground). They are more intuitive and have greater creative potential. Blockuits don’t aim to teach specific electronic concepts, but rather aim to help children develop an innate understanding of basic circuitry and magnetism. Another differentiator is that it is soft, while most electronics kits are hard, plastic, metal and wood.
Research: Education and Interviews
Although Blockuits is not a learning toy, it was important for kids to take away some sort of educational concept. The majority of my research came from books and interviewing a few educators.
The first interviewee was Eun Jun (EJ) Park, an artist and engineer whose main focus is creating automata sculptures, which are self-operating moving sculptures that run on basic mechanisms such as gears and pulleys. She is also an instructor at RoboFun, an after-school program in media and technology for youths, which is also a division of Vision Education and Media. At RoboFun, EJ assists in developing robotics curriculums for Kindergarteners through middle schoolers based on the robot projects she develops. She also designs educational do-it-yourself kits for children, and runs workshops revolved around the kits she designs. The workshops help build proficiency in basic engineering principles.
I thought it would be beneficial to interview EJ in the beginning stage because she has a lot of experience working with children. I wanted to get a sense of her process when developing projects and kits for children. EJ could not stress enough how important it is to know your target audience first before designing for them. From this interview, I also realized that perhaps it’s not the best idea to market this toy as a learning toy. I decided to take EJ’s approach and just design something that would be fun for children, without trying to formally teach them anything. My focus shifted to introducing children basic electronics concepts, and exposing them to this world at a young age, in a cause and effect manner.
One-third of the way through development, I interviewed David Wells who is the Manager of Creative Making and Learning at the New York Hall of Science. As the manager, he runs the Maker Space, a space within the museum designated for schools, families and makers to learn about the art of “making.” Wells also designs the curriculum used for the Maker Space. Some activities that take place in that space include creative circuitry, soldering, soft circuits, Ardunio programming and more.
One of the most interesting discussions during the interview with David was about hands-on, design-based, project-based learning and its resurgence. David noted that this sort of learning prepares children for the real-world because in the real-world, it’s uncommon for people to memorize a lot of information and then spit it back out. The real-world is all about projects, problem-solving and collaboration. Therefore introducing children to toys that support this sort of informal learning at a young age is extremely beneficial. Because the children have solved problems with their hands, a sense of empowerment and accomplishment is also felt.
Shortly after interviewing David Wells, I interviewed Christian Rodriguez, a first grade teacher for gifted and talented students at P.S. 229 in Woodside, Queens. He has been an educator for five years.
The purpose of this interview was to gain insight into a first-grade classroom in a New York City Public School, being that first-graders are the part of the target audience for Blockuits. Christian Rodriguez did a thorough job of portraying what first-graders are learning, and what they are capable of learning and understanding. First-graders may not fully grasp the concept of simple circuits, but they will definitely grasp the idea that some blocks stick together, and some don’t. Through this toy, they will also understand cause and effect. The toy will encourage collaboration with not only peers, but parents and educators, as well.
Who is Blockuits for?
Blockuits are designed for children aged three through ten years old. The softness of the foam blocks appeal to the younger children, as well as girls. Blockuits breaks the gender barrier with its aesthetic appeal. Six-year-olds are beginning to learn problem solving strategies and reflection in schools. In New York, fourth graders are beginning to learn about electricity and magnetism by learning how to construct and interact with simple circuits. They are also learning about parts within a system.
Blockuits are also targeted towards parents who are interested in toys with educational value that encourage creative growth. They are a good home supplement to the curriculum in schools.
The tertiary audience is educators invested in educational toys. The product is appropriate for any class providing block building. They could also be part of a children’s science museum setting.
A scenario in the form of a story was also developed for an older prototype: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NHM6pyJ1eL5IF-BPxVHPXoExcUAcmHyqrKv0TP_TCQs/edit
The final working prototype of Blockuits was the third major prototype. I started with a wooden block system, then experimented with modular monster plush toys before finally reaching the large, foam electronic building blocks.
Play Tests and Feedback
All three major prototypes have been play tested multiple times, and improvements were made based on feedback from the testers in a user-centered approach.
Blockuits’ first working prototype was tested on October 22, 2012 at the New York Hall of Science in Corona, New York. The play test was with a group of 7th graders who were in an after-school program about creative circuitry. One group played with the toy for 30 minutes and provided insightful feedback. Without communicating the purpose of Blockuits, one boy was able to recognize that the toy was about simple circuitry and exposing children to circuitry at a young age. Suggestions were also offered towards the end of the session, including making the scale larger.
The second time wooden Blockuits was tested was on December 15, 2012 at PLAYTECH, an event where children play test prototypes created by students in the Design and Technology program at Parsons. Since the circuit on the power base was diagonal, many people tried to put the blocks diagonally. The soft, vibrational component was the most successful output. Because of that, I started thinking about soft materials.
Both wooden Blockuits and the Monster Plush System were tested on February 23, 2013 during another event at Parsons. Because most of the attendants were adults, most of the feedback came from those outside of the demographic, though many of them game designers. Most gravitated towards the plush monsters, then the wooden version of Blockuits. The large, foam version was still under development.
Parsons held another PLAYTECH event on April 13, 2013. Both the Monster Plush System and the final iteration of foam Blockuits were tested. The children enjoyed playing with both toys, but preferred the foam Blockuits. One 11-year-old girl stated that the foam Blockuits was her favorite toy/game at PLAYTECH. During this play test, it was observed that Blockuits had some stability issues due to the softness of the foam, and lack of depth.
On April 23, 2013, both the Monster Plush System and foam Blockuits were brought to Mr. Rodriguez’ classroom. Nineteen kids play-tested both toys for a total of 90 minutes. The kids were broken down into three groups. The concept of the toys were introduced, then children played with the toys for about 20 minutes each, followed by an interview session. The 1st group preferred the plush toys over the foam blocks, and focused more on jumping onto the analog blocks. Almost everyone in the 2nd and 3rd groups worked together to build a structure with Blockuits. Barely any attention was given to the Monster Plush System. The monster heads were only used to add to their structure. Most of the children understood that a battery block was necessary in order to complete the circuit. When someone didn’t understand, one of the other kids offered help and reminded them that they needed a power block to complete the circuit.
Blockuits was first brought out to the public at the Parsons MFADT 2013 Thesis show. For this show, an installation was made. I thought it was best to place all of my prototypes within a giant blanket fort made by PVC tubes. Opening night was on May 8, 2013.
From June 24 – 27th, 2013, Blockuits was demonstrated at the Interaction Design and Children (IDC) conference, an international conference bringing together “researchers, designers and educators to explore new forms of technology, design and engaged learning among children. The conference incorporates papers, presentations, speakers, workshops, participatory design experiences and discussions on how to create better interactive experiences for children.”
“Blockuits: Innovating Building Blocks” was published in IDC ‘13 Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, pages 519 – 592.
Blockuits was also presented at Maker Faire NYC from September 20 – 22, 2013. “Maker Faire is an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. Maker Faire is primarily designed to be forward-looking, showcasing makers who are exploring new forms and new technologies. But it’s not just for the novel in technical fields; Maker Faire features innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft.”
Blockuits are more intuitive and have greater creative potential than many related toys. Blockuits don’t aim to teach specific electronic concepts, but instead work to help children develop an innate understanding of basic circuitry and magnetism.
Blockuits are a tool supporting 21st century skills. In order to succeed today, children must “learn to think creatively, plan systematically, analyze critically, work collaboratively, communicate clearly, design iteratively, and learn continuously.” Blockuits support these skills through their open-play, systemic design and technology, as well as through the encouragement of co-play. The prototypes presented begin to define and explore a rich problem space where open-ended experimentation will be as important, if not more so, than mastery of information.
I would like to further develop Blockuits once more funding becomes available. Currently, Blockuits only has outputs, but not inputs. I think it would be interesting to add inputs such as sensors, further strengthening the concept of cause of effect. In its current state, Blockuits is very unstable. Thicker, denser foam needs to be used to increase stability. Stronger magnets would also help with the stability issue. I would also like to explore more shapes within the system.
Paweena Prachanronarong is an interaction designer, thinker, problem solver and artist. As a recent graduate from the MFA Design and Technology program at Parsons School of Design, she has focused on pushing the boundaries of simple interfaces and interactions. Her passions lie in the process of developing creative ideas based on research, iteration and testing. She believes this is the road to true innovation and solving problems in novel ways.
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