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Impact of Childhood Games

2011 March 26
by Hélène Martin

Every Monday at lunch, a group of girls get together in my room to discuss various computing-related topics.  Appropriately, we call it the ‘Girls’ Technology Discussion Group.’  We have a mailing list and every week, someone different sends out an article or question to discuss.  We’ve covered a broad range of ideas in the last few months from Egypt’s Internet shutdown to the power of Kickstarter for funding new ideas to the effect of ubiquitous digital media on teenagers’ attention span.  I always learn a lot from talking with the group and I look forward to our meetings every week.

Last week, one of the girls shared an article on Cubelets, a set of sensor and output blocks that when put together form simple robots.  We talked about several interesting things — academic ideas becoming products, other interactive digital toys like Siftables and the effect of toys on kids who play with them.  The girl who brought in the article mentioned that she thought having access to this sort of toy as a kid might have given her an earlier interest in computing and technology pursuits.  We went into a conversation about toys and games we enjoyed as kids and it was interesting to see what we shared.  All of us enjoyed playing with building games like K’Nex or Legos and we could all remember specific puzzle-type games that had fascinated us.  One of the girls, a star programmer who was surprised by her ability and interest in CS, remembered a game-making program kind of like Scratch that she used as a kid — somehow she had forgotten about that experience until then.

We wondered about how long something like Cubelets would be entertaining for.  How many different configurations are there?  Is this something that would be a long-lasting toy or a novelty that is quickly discarded?  This led us to talking about highly structured versus open-ended play.  One girl who is very interested in mechanical pursuits mentioned that though she enjoyed Legos a lot as a kid, she never wanted to mix up the different kits’ parts and wanted to follow the instructions in the little booklets exactly.  She wondered whether this reluctance then affects her design abilities now. To this day, I have Legos neurotically organized in bins by kit origin, and I also wonder why I was so obsessive about following instructions and didn’t make many designs of my own.  Did that affect the way I operate now?

I wrote a while ago about some of the non-programming experiences that primed me for interest and success in computer science but I don’t think I went far back enough in my childhood or thought broadly enough about activities that may have affected me.  I’m sure there’s a lot of research on the impact of childhood play on later pursuits but it was a fascinating conversation to have with young women I know and have great respect for.  I’m looking forward to Monday’s discussion!

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    March 26, 2011

    First of all, I think this discussion group is a great thing. Second, reading this makes me happy that I know you for so many reasons. Third, hi. Fourth, this list of items is way too long to be so short.

  2. March 26, 2011

    What a wonderful idea this discussion group is. I wish more people ran groups like this with their students. Informal learning like this is, as you show, educational for all involved.

    • Hélène Martin permalink*
      March 26, 2011

      Thanks — it’s truly a highlight of my week! I recommend it to all.

  3. March 27, 2011

    I agree with the comment above. You are awesome.

  4. susan permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Yes, I too organized all of my legos and loved following the steps. Recently, I have had the opportunity to teach engineering using NXT robotics to students in grades 3-6 and it wasn’t until then that I needed to come up with my own designs and needed to figure out all the different reasons to use a different part. It took me much longer than I would have thought to fight through my normal following instructions methodology. It is also usually really frustrating for the majority of my students at first to build without steps. They are so used to their teachers telling them exactly what to do and when to do it. We try to give as much building time as possible with no steps to follow; just a goal to build a robot that performs a certain action. There is a hump that students have to get over to work this way and for our program giving them lots of time to work it all out has really helped. Though, I fear that this is not really an option in more traditional settings.

    Also, I too love the idea of these informal discussions you have going with your students!

    • Hélène Martin permalink*
      March 30, 2011

      I’m so glad your students get the opportunity to figure out building for themselves! That’s a terrific experience for them to have.

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