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Designing the Dream Toy

Taking requests from the littlest clients, HGSE students find their inner “maker” as they design new objects for learning (and play).

What if a child could have any toy she could imagine? For the 24 students who took Assistant Professor Bertrand Schneider’s spring course, Making and Digital Fabrication in Education, that was the question at hand. As part of a mid-course assignment, students were asked to interview children ages 4 – 8 about an ideal: If they could have any toy to play with, what would it be? Then, the students were tasked with making those toys a reality.

For many students, the “Dream Toy” assignment was the first time they had designed a learning tool or educational toy from beginning to end — and the project was a culmination of many skills learned in the first half of the course. “We have them think of themselves as designers of educational material,” Schneider says, noting that some students had never used a hammer or saw before the course. “It takes time to realize they can do this and see themselves as a different person in the maker space. Ultimately, it is a transformative experience for many of them.”

The maker space in the newly opened Cheng Yu Tung Education Innovation Studio offers opportunities for students to engage their creativity and critical thinking in different ways than they do in a traditional classroom, says Schneider. By using the 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, and other tools in the studio, the students in the course could build their projects by hand, making them more invested in the educational value of the toys they create, he says.

Master’s candidate Rachel Kwon, who studied cognitive science at Wellesley College and volunteered in afterschool programs, took Schneider’s class to learn more about how to use the tools in the maker space to foster learning and discovery in children. She’s interested in how to apply cognitive science to the learning experiences of children.

Kwon says there were many surprises to working with 5-year-old Stella Littenberg-Tobias, the daughter of her boss, Joshua Littenberg-Tobias. “When I got there [to interview her], I expected she would want a doll or princess, but she asked for something completely different – a gas station,” Kwon says, admitting to her preconceived notions. “It was interesting and empowering to see how perceptions may not always [align with] what kids want.”

Stella knew exactly what she wanted in the design of the toy, down to the color and how she planned to use it. “Even at a young age, kids can have agency in their learning and playing,” Kwon says.
 
Following the interviews with the children, Kwon and the other students had two weeks to develop the design, create a prototype, and make the final product. The actual building of the toys — which ranged from a unicorn alphabet set to a maze — was time-consuming for many students. Kwon designed Stella’s interactive gas station with lights, sound, and different textures that allowed her to match patterns, tell a story with her own dolls, and engage in imaginary play.
 
During a small celebration at the studio, the students presented the toys to the children and their parents (see slideshow). Though Stella didn’t respond verbally to the toy, she continued to tinker throughout the evening, pressing buttons and trying things out, and her father, Joshua, later reported that the she plays with it often at home.

“It was encouraging to see in the maker space that you can make something meaningful for students and kids, and the impact it can have,” Kwon says.  “It can make a difference in someone’s life.”
 
As the course ends, Schneider’s ultimate goal is for students to feel empowered as makers, ready to bring the lessons learned into their work after HGSE.   

“I want students to think of themselves as creators of powerful learning experiences … [and] that they can build things other people will use and that have educational value,” he says, stressing the importance of understanding design principles informed by learning theories. “When they leave HGSE and pursue their next career, this course will also provide them with a much-needed critical lens to assess a wide range of educational products.”