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'Smart' toys helping to make smart kids: a different type of interface

By Lydia Plowman and Rosemary Luckin - posted Monday, 28 July 2003

This UK study, codenamed CACHET (Computers and Children's Electronic Toys), is a wide-ranging exploration of issues involving the use of toys in conjunction with computer software in childhood learning. It has specific implications for the design of digital toys and, because there has been little prior research in this area, it is timely both for its analysis and for laying the foundations for future reasearch into areas beyond the specific toys and software used in this study to the general design of tangible interfaces for learning technologies. It has been widely disseminated in the UK and abroad to audiences ranging from early childhood practicioners to academics. Details of CACHET have been circulated to 57 toy companies in the UK, and one of the results of this has been the establishment of an on-going relationship with Leapfrog Toys UK.

The aims of the study were three-fold:-

  • To construct a descriptive framework of interaction and mediation engendered by digital toys in formal and informal educational contexts
  • To contribute to the development of methodologies and analytical tools for research into interactivity beyond the desktop
  • To inform the design of digital toys.

The toys chosen as the focus of this research can be used on a stand-alone basis or in conjunction with a computer and so provided scope for examining children's responses to multiple interfaces on an exploratory basis. They appear like traditional soft toys but have a vocabulary of about 4000 words, motors to provide movement and a ROM chip so they respond to inputs such as the hand, toe or ear being squeezed. Produced by Microsoft and marketed as Actimates, the toys have now been withdrawn from the market because the costs of R&D made them too dear. Although there has been a marked increase in the availability of other 'smart' toys during the lifetime of this study, the particular functionality of the Actimates has not been replicated.

Targeted at children ages four to eight, the toys are based on Arthur and his sister DW, two aardvark characters from the Marc Brown stories. On a stand-alone basis the toys ask questions and suggest games. Playing simultaneously with the toy and the compatible CD-ROMs that feature language and number games requires a 'PC pack' accessory consisting of a radio transmitter that connects to the computer's game port. This increases the toy's vocabulary to 10,000 words, enabling it to comment on the child's interaction with the software and to offer advice and encouragement. In this mode, the child does not interact solely with the computer but also interacts with the toy which, in turn, interacts with the computer and mediates the child's actions. If the child plays with a partner the interaction possibilities are multiplied.

Whilst engaged in the software activities, children are able to elicit help from the toy by squeezing its ear. If the toy is not present, the help and information are provided by a clickable on-screen icon of Arthur or DW. If children have difficulty with a game, or persist in making the same mistake, the toy or icon reminds them of this. This provision of the same help content delivered through different mechanisms was central to our interest in these toys.

Data Collection:

A common core of data collection methods was employed, comparing use of the toy alone, the software alone and the two used in conjunction across all sites. This was supplemented with methods that were suitable for the different conditions in specific locations - homes, after school clubs and classrooms.

Researchers adopted both a controlled approach with detailed, dual-source video analysis and a semi-naturalistic approach using video, diaries and interviews. The Wechsler Pre-School and Primary Intelligence Scales - Revised (WPPSI-R), were used across all sites to provide data on verbal and non-verbal skills and the Pre-school Play behaviour Scale (PPBS) was used in the after school clubs and the classroom. Children taking part in the at home studies were visited three times over a period of approximately two weeks (beginning, midway and end). Twelve children (six girls and six boys, average age of 6:2) were involved, either receiving the toy and then the software or the software and then the toy, with all children having both items for the second week. Parents completed a diary over the two weeks to provide background information and data on use of the toy/software in the researcher's absence. Video recordings were made on an opportunistic basis.

Fieldwork in the four after school clubs was similar to that conducted in the school inasmuch as children used the items for fixed times, were observed once and the playleaders completed a PPBS. Twenty-two children (nine girls and 13 boys, average age of 5:5) participated in the sessions which were an average of thirty minutes in duration. Children used the toy/software individually or as pairs and, as in the homebased studies, children were introduced to either the toy or the software first.


A more controlled approach was adopted in the classroom, with detailed, dual-source video analysis of 32 children (16 girls, 16 boys) with an average age of 4:7. Children were observed on single visits and spent about twenty minutes playing with the toy on its own followed by an average of forty minutes playing with the software, either with or without the toy. Both sessions were recorded on video. The teacher completed a PPBS for each child and parents provided data on home computer use and the child's favourite software and toys. All children were given verbal instructions on using the software and received a demonstration of how to access the help facility. At the school and after school clubs the researcher's role was to remain in the background but to prompt activity when children were stuck.

All of the data relating to the individual children in the homes and individuals or pairs in the after school clubs were compiled to produce separate case studies. This enabled analysis of data for individuals and across children and to build up a detailed picture including context of use, individual differences, patterns of play and use of the toy and software.


Although parents found the ways in which the toy and the software interacted to be an impressive feature, children seemed to take it for granted. In homes, the time spent playing with the toy or the software decreased as the novelty value diminished, although interest in the toy wore off faster. The software had more lasting appeal whether the toy was used with it or not. If the toy was introduced after the software, the toy was played with infrequently, if at all, partly because the help features were not generally needed - the software had already been explored. However, in this sequence it was also the case that the toy was mostly seen as an adjunct to the software and rarely played with away from the PC.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
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About the Authors

Dr Lydia Plowman is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Research at the institute of Education, University of Stirling.

Dr Rosemary Luckin is a Reader at the School of Cognitive and Computer Sciences, University of Sussex.

Related Links
CACHET Project home page
Lydia Plowman's home page
Rosemary Luckin's home page
Photo of Lydia PlowmanLydia PlowmanPhoto of Rosemary LuckinRosemary Luckin
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