How to Design Smart Toys for Creative Kids

According to over 1,500 CEOs worldwide, the number one skill a future leader needs to have is creativity. While this might seem obvious, consider it in the following context. Since 1990, even as IQ scores have risen, measures of creative thinking have decreased significantly in the United States, particularly amongst kindergartners through third graders. This result has been so troubling that some have declared the United States to be in a "Creativity Crisis."

In order to prepare today's children's to become tomorrow's leaders, it is clear that an intervention is needed. A creative intervention. But our kids live in a paradoxical world: although technology is ubiquitous, it is typically used to consume media, rather than to create and implement new ideas. Investments in education technology are at an all-time high, but school curricula have become increasingly structured and standardized, at the expense of playtime and the arts.

Since creativity underlies innovation, how do we spark the curiosity of young children to better prepare them for the future? How do we design smart toys to inspire kids to create and innovate? "Smart" now has a dual meaning: smart toys provide children with an intellectual challenge, but are also connected devices in their own right, in the "Internet of Things" usage of the term. Technology has truly infiltrated every part of our lives.

As a learning designer building toys for kids, I ask myself similar questions every day. Here are five principles for designing "smart toys" that can help spark imagination and creativity in kids of all ages:

  1. KISS: "Keep it simple, stupid." Our obsessions with beeping, buzzing, flashing gadgets may make us seem plugged-in and tech savvy, but these "bells and whistles" can distract from learning. A 2013 study found that the presence of electronic features in storybooks negatively affected dialogue between parents and children during reading time and led to poorer story comprehension. Parents tended to spend more time interrupting the experience with comments like "Click here!" and "Don't turn the page yet!" When designing, focus on a set of core features and avoid unnecessary complexity.

  • Weird can be good. Creativity requires divergent thinking, or the ability to generate unique ideas by exploring many possible solutions, or "thinking outside the box." Young children are often skilled at divergent thinking, as social norms and life experience have yet to force constraints on their imaginations. So in order to design for divergent thinking, we need to practice divergent thinking. Inspiration can often come from seemingly random sources -- when brainstorming, don't dismiss ideas as "just too weird." They might evolve into something really interesting.
  • Trial and error is encouraged. Children are constantly asking questions and experimenting. If you have ever seen a young child play with blocks, you have seen the scientific method in action. By trying different solutions to solve problems, even simple ones like "is this the same or different?" or "does this block fit in this space?" new knowledge is discovered. Designing play experiences that include opportunities for experimentation can provide both children and adults with illuminating insights.
  • Avoid functional fixedness (or, try to bring out kids' inner MacGyvers). Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias against using objects in new ways to solve problems. For example, if you need to tighten a screw and don't have a screwdriver, you might not think of using a bobby pin or paper clip in a pinch. Adults have learned through experience that certain objects serve specific purposes. However, at 5 years of age, children do not show this bias. But by age 7, children learn to associate objects with specific functions, and have trouble seeing them in different ways. When designing for creativity, keep your mind open. Test out your ideas with young children as much as you can, and you are guaranteed to be surprised and inspired by their ingenuity.
  • Focus on the learning, not the teaching. If your memories of school consist mostly of sitting in a lecture hall or in rows of tiny desks being talked at, you are definitely not alone. However, when encouraging creative thinking, it is important to focus less on pedagogy, and more on the opportunity for inquiry and discovery. Introduce concepts in ways that kids can relate to things they already know, and allow them the freedom to direct their own learning experiences.
  • John F. Kennedy once said, "In a crisis, be aware of the danger -- but recognize the opportunity." Declining creativity scores are troubling, but also present an opportunity. For those of us who design smart toys for learning, it's time to add some childlike wonder to new experiences and products that provide a foundation for the next generation to create the future.