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Tech Toys for the Holidays

Tech Toys for the Holidays

by Kathryn Boughton

Modern children appear to be born with an innate understanding of technology. By age two they are swiping iPads and manipulating computer programs. Now there are tech toys on the market that not only invite children to play with technologies, but to learn to control them.

A Tech Talk on such toys for holiday giving is planned for 18 November at 6PM at the Mahoney-Hewat Science Center at Housatonic Valley Regional High School when representatives of Small Fish Technologies will discuss “toys” that inspire true creativity.

“It’s fantastic,” said Daniel McMullan, owner of the Lakeville-based business. “More and more people are embracing this teaching mechanism and subject. These are more than toys. When I think of a toy, I think of something that is finished that a child plays with. There is no wrong answer about how to put these kits together. They are materials meant for inventing and learning - closer to a tool.”

McMullan said his firm is presenting a four-week series of Circuit Sundays at the high school to introduce young people to products that teach basic programming. “We start with basic circuits, motors and wires then move to various tech toys,” he said. “For instance, MaKey-MaKey sounds kind of goofy, but it’s pretty fun and shows kids how to send electrical currents from all sorts of things.”

The MaKey MaKey tricks a computer into thinking that almost anything is a keyboard - including bananas and Play Doh - by using high-resistance switching to detect when a connection is made, even to materials that aren't very conductive.

This basic toy leads into the next level, The Sparkfun Digital Sandbox, a learning platform powered by a microcontroller that interacts with real-world inputs such as light or temperature sensors. The Digital Sandbox is equipped with everything needed to complete thirteen experiments.

“Digital Sandbox has a credit card-size computer board with incredible capacity,” said McMullen. “It can write programs and load them into a little motherboard. That device allows kids to experiment. They have full control over the input.”

Digital Sandbox is followed by Little Bits, a platform of electronic building blocks that empower young people to invent anything, from remote controlled cars to a smart home device. The Bits snap together with magnets so no soldering, wiring or programming is needed.

For those who have progressed through these kits, there is still more to explore. “Arduino gets into real programming,” McMullan said. “That is a little more advanced, even though the kit says ‘ages eight and older.’ It’s really more in the ten to fourteen age range. What we are talking about is a progression. A lot of these kits come out of MIT groups, who realize how kids learn.”

“It really does the job of stepping anyone through this stuff,” said McMullen. “I have seen people who have hated computers get excited about this. You are hands-on working with this stuff, playing with variables. Programming becomes second nature.”

McMullan said the Tech Toys for the Holidays talk will give parents and grandparents insights into how the kits work and their potential benefits for children. He said children from the age of eight easily grasp the concepts, especially when working with a parent or older sibling.

Small Fish Technologies may present the Sunday Circuit series again after the holidays if a schedule can be worked out with HVRHS. At the same time, Small Fish provides “a little maker’s space for tinkerers and excited people” Saturdays from 10AM - noon at its own 325 Main Street headquarters.

Ryan Richardson, one of the teachers, said the classes “allow you to fail without the penalties of failing.”

“You can either ask for help or work at it yourself until it does work,” added McMullen.

To register for the Tech Talk, e-mail Nancy Martin at nmartin@hvrhs.org or call 860-824-7850. For information about the Small Fish Makers Space, call 860-351-7373.

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