Robots for Kids: Exploring New Technologies for Learning

Robots for Kids: Exploring New Technologies for Learning

by Allison Druin, James Hendler

Within the sphere of children's learning and play, the concept of robot and the application of actual robots are undergoing a dramatic expansion. Here the term "robot" refers to a growing range of interactive devices-including toys, pets, assistants to the disabled, and overtly educational tools-which are being used in ways that are expected to have profound and


Within the sphere of children's learning and play, the concept of robot and the application of actual robots are undergoing a dramatic expansion. Here the term "robot" refers to a growing range of interactive devices-including toys, pets, assistants to the disabled, and overtly educational tools-which are being used in ways that are expected to have profound and beneficial effects on how our children develop and grow.

Robots for Kids: Exploring New Technologies for Learning opens with contributions from leading designers and researchers, each offering a unique perspective into the challenge of developing robots specifically for children. The second part is devoted to the stories of educators who work with children using these devices, exploring new applications and mapping their impact. Throughout the book, essays by children are included that discuss their first-hand experiences and ideas about robots. This is an engaging, entertaining, and insightful book for a broad audience, including HCI, AI, and robotics researchers in business and academia, new media and consumer product developers, robotics hobbyists, toy designers, teachers, and education researchers.


  • contributions by leaders in the fields of human-computer interaction and robotics
  • product development stories told by leading designers and researchers in organizations such as Microsoft, MIT Media Lab, Disney, and Sony
  • product application stories told by educators who are making robots a central part of kids' learning experiences, both in and out of the classroom
  • essays by kids-some, users of robotic technology, and others, designers in their own right

Product Details

Elsevier Science & Technology Books
Publication date:
Interactive Technologies
Product dimensions:
7.42(w) x 9.22(h) x 0.86(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: To Mindstorms and Beyond


This chapter traces the 30-year history of robotic construction kits for children, beginning with Seymour Papert's Logo language developed at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, through to the LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention System launched in 1998, and beyond. In the future, physical and computational construction kits will be commonplace, and children will use them for their own purposes, inventing their own toys and using technology to reveal the world around them.


When does something stop being a machine and become a creature? From a very early age, children find movement captivating. For centuries, we have been fascinated by the inanimate brought to life. The Jewish legend of the Golem, a hunk of clay brought to life by God, has been succeeded by the story of Frankenstein, mechanical automatons, 2001's Hal, and a myriad of other myths. For the last 50 years, computers have allowed us to create worlds that live inside of the electronic box, creating artificial creatures in the sense of these stories. And over the last 15 years, children have been able to play in these worlds (e.g., video games) and build in them, using tools like the Logo programming language. But only now can children embed computation into physical artifacts. In doing so, they create objects that, in a real sense, are brought to life, animated by a computer program also created by the child. These playthings, enabled by computational construction kits and living at a boundary between the animate and inanimate, allow children a special relationship to the world of technology we are living in. The magic oftechnology, so much a part of all of our lives, is both revealed and revered. Children realize that sophisticated behaviors can emerge from interactions of rules with a complex world but, at the same time, are still captivated by the wonder of a machine acting like a pet.

Designing tools that allow children to add computation to traditional construction-and recognizing the learning opportunities afforded by this activity-has been the focus of our work over the last number of years. This chapter explores this work as part history, part design narrative, and part vision.

In the first section, we explore a 30-year trajectory of computational design environments for children, beginning with Seymour Papert's original Logo work at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and ending with our recent Cricket computers. We refer both to Seymour Papert's vision of children's learning in his book Mindstorms (Papert 1980) and also to the Mindstorms Robotics Invention System, launched by the LEGO Group in 1998.

This section of the chapter may seem overly technical. Indeed, the focus is on the evolution of a particular set of technologies (the robotics construction kit). But our intent is to illuminate a set of design issues around which many people have explored different avenues based on their own passions. For instance, Umaschi and Urrea's work on "Con-science" (Chapter 6 of this book) proposes robotic design activities for learning about values and identity. Turkle (1984) has explored psychological implications of computational artifacts and the process of creating them. So while we focus on technology, the intent is to reveal the process by which we were led along in creating these systems, not just the particular waypoints themselves.

In the second section, we describe a set of activities oriented around science experiments, where children investigate various phenomena from a computational standpoint. We give an in-depth narration of the kinds of activities that are possible with the latest versions of our materials. This discussion is oriented around our present "Beyond Black Boxes" project, in which children perform scientific investigations with the computational construction kit. Here, we share the quality of children's experience with our tools and their relationship to them. Our hope is that the fluid, serendipitous, and yet rigorous investigations that we describe would become a commonplace replacement for the school science we are all too familiar with.

In the conclusion, we discuss new technological directions and our work in building a library of application ideas around these materials. We present a vision of the future in which children are as fluent in combining a diverse collection of computational tools-handheld, tangible, and interconnected-as they are with video games and CD players today.

From Floor Turtles to Crickets

Since the late 1960s, our research group has been developing robotic construction kits for children. Early work, led by Seymour Papert, included the development of the Logo programming language. A popular use of Logo was in conjunction with "floor turtles"-wastebasket-sized robots tethered to mainframes. With pens mounted in their bodies, floor turtles made drawings on butcher paper, commanded by children's Logo programs.

In 1972, Papert and Cynthia Solomon published a memo entitled "20 Things to Do with a Computer" (Papert and Solomon 1972). Many of these activities involved hooking some kind of contraption up to a computer and programming it to perform-for instance, a puppet show, a yo-yo, or a yardstick-balancer. In essence, these projects proposed robotic design activities before a general-purpose robotic construction kit for children was available.

The Road to LEGO/Logo

Over the 1970s and into the 1980s, Papert's vision of computing, in which children explore ideas by constructing their own computer programs, came into reality as the first microcomputers entered schools. Logo as a computer programming language, a philosophy of learning, and a culture of users grew with the publication of Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Papert 1980). Mindstorms presented us with constructionism-the philosophy of learning by building ideas in one's mind as part of building artifacts in the world.

In the mid-1980s our research group began a collaboration with the LEGO Group. Combining the LEGO Technic product (which includes beams, gears, and motors) with the Logo language, we created the LEGO/Logo system. With LEGO/Logo, children could build various mechanical contraptions-a Ferris wheel, elevator, robot creature-connect them to an interface box, and then write Logo programs to control their movement (Resnick and Ocko 1991).

The LEGO/ Logo system became commercially available in the late 1980s, sold to schools by the LEGO Group with the name LEGO tc logo. LEGO/ Logo was a fantastic innovation-in an important sense, it was the first true robotic construction kit ever made widely available-but it had limitations. Children's machines had to be connected to a desktop computer with wires, which greatly limited projects' mobility. If the machine just had one motor, it was not too inconvenient, but once a machine had a couple of motors and sensors, each with its own cable, pretty soon there was a whole wiring harness connecting the interface box to the LEGO project. This was both a practical nuisance, making it clumsy to build a machine that moved about, but also a conceptual one: logically, the "intelligence" behind a machine's operation should be bundled with the machine, not sitting on a desktop.

The First Programmable Brick

At about the same time as LEGO/Logo was reaching schools, we began thinking about its successor...

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