I was recently watching CNN and there was a short story about Little Bits, a company started by Ayah Bdeir.
She has created an open source library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets for prototyping and play. Each bit has a simple unique function (light, sound, sensors, buttons, thresholds, pulse, motors, etc) which snap to make larger circuits.
Play is an important activity as it couples exploration, enjoyment and stimulation which both teases the mind and can affect very pragmatic activities. With play, trial-and-error is an important learning tool to intake the rules of what works and gets you to an objective – and what doesn’t. Little Bit’s larger goal is to create scientific thinkers and problem-solvers through exposing children to empirical science through play.
With children, there have been many toys that have been designed as a kit of parts such as Froebel Blocks, lincoln logs, tinker toys, erector sets, and of course Legos. Little Bits seems to refer to Lego as an analogy, with the difference that Little Bits are pre-programmed as either power, input, output or a wire. Lego also was a lightning rod at MIT in 1986 when the MIT Media Lab brought the first LEGO based educational products to market by Seymour Papert and Marvin Minksy. In an interview with Marvin Minsky, he discussed why they merged Lego and programming together :
When my friend, Seymour Papert, first invented LOGO, I had the same experience again. LOGO has some things like sticks—except that their computer commands: a stick 100 units long is called “FORWARD 100”. LOGO also has things like spools: “RIGHT: 90” starts a second stick at right angles to the last one you drew. I recognized old building-friends at once. Source
The goal was to merge toy building systems with basic programming to bring to another level of play what a toy could do. Lego now has very sophisticated robotic toys such as Mindstorms. However, there is something very basic and wonderful about non-representational toys such as Little Bits which focus on creating basic programmed objects that can then be made more and more sophisticated as a child interacts and learns to build upon basic concepts. It is the best of both worlds where building and action come together.
Unfortunately at this time, it is not possible to adjust the parameters of the Little Bit sensors through an API. Ayah’s goal is to ramp up production and reduce the cost of the kits so they are more affordable. So for now, Little Bits are being used by adults and families that have the income to afford them. This does not detract from their value and are proving that play and learning through interaction can be both fun – and informative.