I have blogged several times about toys that make you think. A lot of companies makes claims their products do that. Easy to say. Makes them seem so on top of education. The truth is, designing product for 21st Century skills takes a lot of thought and a lot of understanding what those skills are and how they can be applied. It's not the same 'ole way of designing a learning product.
It is not that the tried and true "ABCs and 123s" are any less important; they are, but the concepts are grasped a lot easier once a child learns how to learn. Yes, children have to learn how to learn. Relating letters and numbers is helped when experiencing them in unique and personal ways. It is easier to learn by playing rather than the drill-for-skill approach of learning toys of the past. Play is a natural way to learn concepts and has been built into many toys already. Spatial concepts in figure and farm playsets, as an example. Learning fundamentals is certainly important, but what you do with that info is even more important. How you use that information to think and apply to everyday life is critical for future success.
But what about the new 21st Century way to learn, or better yet, being able to take on 21st Century careers? The concepts of 21st Century learning is not new, but it is now being implemented with greater enthusiasm. Can a toy really help teach a child how to code? Coding for a preschooler?
I am particularly proud of a line of products just being introduced with a lot of fanfare, by Fisher Price, called the Think and Learn line. This is one of the last product lines I helped vision prior to me leaving, and it represents the future of learning. In fact, it is based on the brands overall meaning of "turning little learners into big thinkers".
The star of the line is the Code-a-pillar, an early sequencing little guy that is a toy first but encourages you to think as you play. It's not only a STEM-based product; it is a toy that lets children think and collaborate with other children. Collaboration being one of the key components of development along with creativity, communication and critical thinking.
Does it work, you ask? Put a preschooler in front of the toy, and you will discover and watch a powerful transformation, as the child begins to explore and challenge himself; thinking about what he must do to make the Code-a-pillar get to the food, around the chair and then left to the water. You will hear him think out loud where he wants it to go and try on various scenarios to make it to happen. This is all under the child's control and he isn't frustrated if it doesn't work the first time. That's the fun. That's a great play experience. And to think he is learning as he plays!
Will a child make the connection they are doing basic programming? Probably not, however, that experiential play embodies the new way to learn, and that thinking skill learned will come back in the future.