It has been 30 years since MIT’s Seymour Papert first asked: “Should the computer program the kid or should the kid program the computer?” Until recently, the toy industry has taken the former approach, churning out high-tech toys that do little to enlist children’s native creativity. Technology, says Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, has mostly been used to create dolls that simply “say something other than ‘Mommy.’ “A welcome change seems to be in the works, though. Starting last year with the Lego Mindstorms construction kits, toy makers are-tentatively-introducing products that offer kids the opportunity to program, create and invent.
Mindstorms, which enables kids to build and program mobile robots, was the first extensively programmable item to reach toy-store shelves. Kids drag and drop code components to define a programming unit called a procedure, which is sent via infrared to a processor mounted on a Lego vehicle. This vehicle can then move around autonomously, with sensors alerting the processor to obstacles that must be navigated around.
This spring, Mindstorms got company as a few new gadgets followed its lead. One is the Cybiko, a kidfriendly personal digital assistant; the other is a crude, inexpensive video camera that could put digital moviemaking into the hands of the young and allowancedependent. Both offerings conform to the view articulated by Media Lab professor Justine Cassell, who with Jenkins edited the 1998 book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. The industry’s emphasis on “smart toys” is misplaced, argues Cassell: “It shouldn’t be the case that the toy is smart; it should be that the toy allows the kid to be smart, or creative, in new ways.”
Opportunities for creativity aren’t always as obvious as with the Papertinspired Lego Mindstorms. Sometimes even a slick-looking consumer gadget packs unusual opportunities. The Cybiko-with its wireless communication and tiny keyboard-might be the offspring of a Nintendo GameBoy and an Apple iMac. Created by Chicago-based startup Cybiko Inc., the handheld game system offers several unusual, enabling features.