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A Robot with Pom-Poms

The Media Lab toy makes programming children’s play.

The decades-long partnership between the Media Lab and Lego has spawned a new company and an innovative robotic toy that blends craft activities with engineering. This fall, the Montreal-based Playful Invention Company (Pico) will launch Cricket, a programmable computer about the size of a candy bar.

Cricket, which comes with kid-friendly software, is part of a craft kit that contains familiar art-class materials. In addition to pipe cleaners, fuzzy pom-poms, felt, and popsicle sticks, there are Lego bricks and electronic components such as motors, lights, and sensors. With Cricket, kids can, say, build a xylophone out of pieces of fruit, programming it to play different notes when fruit chunks are touched with a metal wire to complete an electric circuit. “It’s a balance between traditional craft activities and engineering,” says Media Lab professor Mitchel Resnick, SM ‘88, PhD ‘92, whose team invented Cricket.

The Pico Blocks software that accompanies Cricket gives kids an easy introduction to programming. Instead of struggling with a complicated computer language, kids click, drag, and snap together blocks of commands, controlling how and when a motor should start or a light should go off. The on-screen command blocks look more like puzzle pieces than code.

Already, a number of science museums across the United States have test-driven Cricket during creative-invention workshops. Karen Wilkinson, a science educator at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, says that she is especially pleased to see that Cricket appeals to a more diverse group of kids than do straight robotics or programming classes. – By Tracy Staedter

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