Digital games for children did not exist 60 years ago. With the sale of children’s mobile games for 2017 set at 2.2 billion in the US alone,[i] and statistics telling us that 80% of 2-4 year olds use mobile devices,[ii] today’s digital scene for children is a paradigm shift away from their world in 1967, when Seymour Papert and his team at MIT created the programming language Logo. Based on the constructivist theories Papert had developed working with Jean Piaget in Geneva years before, Logo was all about learning by doing.
The idea that children could learn by doing, in particular by playing, find their roots as far back as Plato and his writings (the Republic, 380 bce, and Laws, 348 bce) in which he tells his audience children should play both “games that arise from natural instinct,” and games that adults provide to “form their character in an informal way.” Ideas about learning through play and doing continued to be refined throughout the centuries by philosophers and educators such as Martin Luther who, in 1525, wrote “the young must leap and jump, or have something to do, because they have a natural desire for it which should not be restrained[iii], John Locke who tells us in 1699, children should not “… be hindered from being children, nor from playing and doing as children.... They love to be busy, change and variety are what they delight in; curiosity is but an appetite for knowledge, the instrument nature has provided to remove ignorance (Some Thoughts Concerning Education §74, §118), and Friedrich Froebel, who in 1837 started the first kindergarten as a place where children could actively engage in learning through playful exploration of learning toys he designed as a series “gifts” still used today (Figure 1).
Fig. 1 Froebel’s Gifts
When in 1967 Papert looked at the computer and its programming languages, he saw them as ideal tools for helping children develop intellectually by teaching them thinking by doing. With the first iterations of Logo children programmed TURTLE, an actual robot, to draw geometrical shapes (Figure 2). In later configurations TURTLE became a sprite and activities became increasingly screen based.[iv] Papert’s theories about learning were confirmed when he saw how 6th grade students reacted positively to seeing tangible results from programming with Logo: their learning was more effortless and was deeper. They more easily understood complexities of subjects such as math, geometry, and physics because they used the principles in their programming.
Papert was remarkable in that he believed even very young children could program and Logo was developed for children as young as three to five to learn mathematics, language, music, robotics, and science. Figure 3 shows children in kindergarten participating in Lego-Logo projects (1980s) during which they built and programmed working vehicles out of Lego blocks.[vii]
Fig. 3 Discovery-based, Logo-rich classrooms
Papert’s work was highly influential in encouraging use of computers and the development of software programs for education. But while Logo went on to spawn physically interactive robotic systems such as LEGO Mindstorms, that included programming and building with motors, lights, and sensors,[viii] the edutainment industry that eventually evolved for children became limited to click and point on-screen activities. These could certainly claim to engage children through play, but they were far from doing so “actively” in physically engaging ways.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
It wasn’t until the Wii and Kinect in (2006 and 2010 respectively) that playing video games in physically active ways would become a reality, not until colAR (2013) that children could themselves affect their screen/real world environment physically, not until Pokemon Go (2016) that games would take children out into a wider world environment, and not until ZapBox (May 2017) that children could take control and build digital/real world environments for themselves in new ways, as they were first able to with Logo and the first Turtle robot, sixty years ago.
Developers of children’s digital interactive entertainment/edutainment were looking for new ways to engage children so when augmented reality and virtual reality became more practical because of the ubiquitousness of tablets and mobile platforms and the new developments in VR headsets, they jumped on the wagon and were able to level up in engaging children actively. (For those who may be unfamiliar with these media, AR uses mobile phones and tablets and VR uses wearable interfaces such as helmets or goggles.)
Different approaches emerged for using augmented reality that tapped into familiar play schemas. Two were 1) the 3-d images children could create through coloring with colAR Mix (2013) and 2) the miniature car races they could create by printing out and positioning racing spaces in Toy Car RC (2014) (Figure 4). In ColAR Mix, which has since become Quiver, children color characters on pages printed from the app, and when viewed on a tablet or mobile phone, these characters come to life. In Toy Car RC, children can build race tracks in their bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms - any space they have some room to position target pages on the floor – and using a tablet or mobile phone can drive Wheely, their little car, through the environments they have built. Both of these activities have children create something physically outside the computer that is then linked with action viewed on the tablet or mobile screen.
Fig. 4 A colAR dragon coming to life, and Wheely on a Western World AR adventure
Then in 2014 VR, which until then was expensive and used equipment such as helmets that were not recommended for children under 12, was made accessible to all by the introduction of Google Cardboard (Figure 5). Through the magic of the lens (remember the View Master from1962?) children could walk around a virtual environment such as the ancient world of dinosaurs (Jurassic Virtual Reality, 2014), or around a country they hadn’t visited before (Tara’s Locket, 2017). Bringing AR and VR together, the Peronio Pop-Up Book (2015) engaged children with Peronio, a little boy who is checking out what he wants to be when he grows up, through different AR/VR experiences: viewing the 3-d action on an i-pad, on their computer screen, or with google glasses, and touching and moving the sets in holographic mode.
Fig. 5 Google Cardboard can be either purchased or made from a kit/template
In these cases, augmented reality trumped virtual reality by having children actively engaged in creating objects they could interact with: this has affinity with Papert’s “learning by doing.”
It wasn’t until ZapBox was released this past May, however, that children could actually create their own AR/VR stories, games, and experiences. Zappar launched the system at AWE 2017, the Augmented Reality Expo saying it was intended “to democratize VR development.”[ix] Because of its simplicity and inexpensiveness ($30 for the kit, Figure 6), ZapBox is an excellent new tool children can use to engage actively in both creating and experiencing their new creation in the real world (Figure 7). Children can slot their phones into the headset, launch the app, and with the paper controllers and pointcodes can create virtual environments in which they paint, play mini-golf, dance mini-games, play a zylophone, or send a probe to explore mars. With some experience they can do a lot more.
Papert would approve.
Fig. 6 ZapBox consists of a cardboard headset, pointcodes, cardboard controllers, a lens adapter (for mobile phones), and the ZapBox app.
Fig. 7 a) a solar system positioned with pointcodes and viewed through a headset b) a brain with a fuse that is about to be set
[iii] Luther’s treatises on education, An address to the magistrates and common councils of all the cities of Germany in behalf of common schools (1525) and Sermon on the Duty of Sending Children to School (1530), are available at http://media.sabda.org/alkitab-8/LIBRARY/LUT_WRK4.PDF
[v] Twenty Things to Do With a Computer. Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon. Artificial Intelligence Memo No. 248. Logo Memo No. 3. MIT. A.I Laboratory
[vi] 2. b. http://cyberneticzoo.com/cyberneticanimals/1969-the-logo-turtle-seymour-papert-marvin-minsky-et-al-american/
[vii] Catherine Gillespie’s article, Seymour Papert’s Vision for Early Childhood Education? A
Descriptive Study of Head Start and Kindergarten Students in Discovery-based, Logo-rich
Classrooms, provides a description of children using Logo in kindergarten. See at http://ecrp.uiuc.