TechWatch: 4IRC Smart Toys recap

  • A 4IRC event was held last week at The Mac in Belfast, asking the question: Can smart toys make smart kids?

    Speakers hailed from Microsoft, Ulster University and Liberty IT. 

    Just a few days after the event, Microsoft announced it will commit $10m to, giving kids further access to smart toys.

    Speaker Stephen Howell, Academic Manager, Microsoft Ireland discussed how important it is to teach kids to code.

    “It’s not about smart kids – it’s about kids who can think differently,” Stephen said.

    “Kids engage with toys in a different way than I used to,” he said, mentioning that he had a Commodore / 8 bit computer and an Atari.

    “There’s a difference between using technology, and building something, when playing,” he said.

    “My focus with kids is ‘you have to write the algorithm’ – and you don’t need to be an engineer.”

    Stephen gave a demonstration of an infrared camera that can be connected to an Xbox to control the game through your body’s movements. His son, who is on the autistic spectrum, wanted to write his own game for it.

    Stephen said, “I created a programme to teach computational thinking.”

    The game was a huge success after he shared it on social media. “Some kids and teachers used it, but it was more popular with medical researchers – creating games for stroke rehabilitation and cerebral palsy.”

    The game is free to download: it’s entitled Kinect for

    “If you add in wearable sensors that track temperature, light, etc, and ask kids to come up with ideas, they can do almost anything.”

    “We want kids to know the four D’s – design, develop, debug, deploy – not just the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic.”

    We have 40,000 jobs to fill in computer science areas– how we are going to get the grads to fill them? By encouraging people to study this stuff.”


    Speaker Dr Victoria Simms is Ulster University’s research director in psychology.

    She said, “My research looks into how kids’ thinking changes over time.”

    “We’re in a time of Moral Panic – this isn’t new – we had it in 1440 over the printing press, then again in the 1800’s over novels, which were held accountable for serial killers. In 1952 the UN said comic books were a threat to world stability. Right now, we’re saying that screens can cause things like autism or social isolation.”

    But, Victoria asks, where is the evidence? “It’s lacking – especially because technology has only been embedded in our homes for the past 10 years.”

    But developmental theory has been studied since the early 1900s, she notes.

    “Montessori was one example – she showed that children learned best when exploring with their environment – with objects.”

    “Vykotsky introduced the concept of scaffolding – that kids need to interact with someone just a bit above their level to learn.”

    “The common ground? Both of them thought that play has to be social, for kids to learn.”

    Then Victoria asked, “What is IQ?”

    “Are people born with a fixed intelligence? All of the data shows that’s not true. Intelligence is the application of problem solving and creativity -- and it can change.”

    There are many things we don’t have evidence for, Victoria says, so let’s review what we do know. 

    1. Exposure to books is important for kids’ brains – but also interacting with someone else, over the book
    2. Positive parental attitudes towards numeracy matters – kids who play math games at home will perform better
    3. Children’s interaction with solid concrete objects is important – kids who play more with Lego and puzzles at home are better learners
    4. Memory skills are correlated with academic achievement
    5. Brain training – it helps you get better at tasks but nothing else! Melby-Lervag studied all the brain training across the world -- there isn’t a transfer from the brain training tasks into academic achievement

    Victoria then addressed the question on everyone’s lips – how much screen time is ok?

    “Studies have shown that 5-15 year olds are spending 15 hours a week on screens,” Victoria said.

    But she noted that all screen time is not created equal. 

    1. Goal-directed activities
    2. Co-use – when parent and child come together to do something with the screen
    3. Passive viewing – in the past, kids watched TV, but now we have more opportunity to interact with kids, with today’s technology

    “More TV watching correlates with lower language, attention and executive functions – all these are based in the frontal lobe. That’s the part of the brain that is developed in childhood – so through childhood you’re really training this cognitive skill.”

    However, she notes, advice can be confusing.

    The American Association of Pediatrics is one of the few organisations willing to put out recommendations, and they have changed so much over time.

    “In 2016 they said you need to create a Family media Plan, consisting of these points: 

    • Age <18 months – no screen time but video calls
    • Age 18-24 months old – high quality apps to maximise learning
    • Age 2+ - one hour a day
    • No screens before bed or at meal times

    Victoria summed up: “We’re having to navigate this challenging area. What do we really need? We need balanced debates with people from different expert areas coming together.”

    “We should rely only on rigorous evidence – no alarmism / hysterical media headlines.”


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