Last updated: 13 March 2023
Published on: 01 October 2018
5 MINS READ
The interactive toys reduce the time children spend in front of screens, while prepping them for the future.
Adapted from original story by Jack Graham
(This story was first published on the Apolitical website and adapted with permission from Apolitical.)
Technology often throws up a dilemma for parents and educators when it comes to gadgets.
Spending hours in front of screens can be detrimental to child development, but at the same time, children need to be tech-savvy to prepare them for the challenges of modern life.
Singapore’s preschools have found a way around the problem.
The government has introduced screen-free robots which help children prepare for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school.
By programming the robots to complete simple tasks, like moving in a certain direction or shining a light, children between four and seven can learn the basics of engineering and sequencing – as a starting point to coding.
The award-winning PlayMaker program, developed by Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), introduced robots to the curriculum in 160 preschools across the island starting in 2016.
It is the first wide-scale use of this new technology, and is being expanded to more preschool settings.
“A paradigm shift”
The project demonstrates “a paradigm shift” in how technology is defined in the preschool sector, said Adrian Lim, Director of Digital Literacy and Participation in IMDA.
One of the Playmaker robots is called Kibo, a machine on wheels which can be custom-built with sensors, lights and motors. It has a scanner by which it receives instructions from barcodes written on wooden blocks.
For example, a child can tell the robot to beep, then move forwards, and then shine a light, simply by scanning the barcodes from the relevant blocks in that order.
A similar robot called Bee-Bot is particularly popular. The small plastic bee has buttons on its back which children can use to program its movement.
Teachers can use the bot in a number of different exercises: for example, placing Bee-Bot on a chart with multiple coloured squares, and asking children to work together to program its move to a certain colour.
The evidence shows that children in the pilot mastered programming concepts very quickly.
By completing tasks which create orders of instructions for the robots, kids learn to make sequences.
This is an important pre-maths and pre-literacy skill, said Amanda Sullivan, a researcher at Tufts University’s DevTech team that created the Kibo robot.
Singapore may boast one of the best-ranked education systems in the world, but it still shares a common struggle with educational authorities elsewhere over getting girls into STEM subjects.
The ratio of female to male STEM researchers in Singapore is 7 to 20.
“Why not start engaging girls early, before gender stereotypes are deeply-ingrained?” said Sullivan.
When children play with the robots, differences between genders are hard to discern, she said, before gender norms set in that see far more boys than girls become interested in STEM.
Though there is no wide-scale study yet, Sullivan has found from surveys that girls are significantly more interested in being an engineer after using the robots.
As well as the traditional STEM subjects, Singapore also incorporates the arts as a priority – adding an “A” to create “STEAM”. Research has suggested that art and design can help to stimulate learning and innovation, and there has been a growing movement worldwide to give them more prominence.
This is reflected in the PlayMaker program. For example, aside from just programming Kibo, children can even design what Kibo looks like from a very basic core machine.
Getting more teachers involved
IMDA’s Playmaker program funded support for 160 preschools, which have incorporated the robots into their curricula.
These preschools own the robots, while other centres in Singapore have to buy them.
To increase the reach, IMDA has partnered with the Association for Early Childhood Educators for Singapore (AECES), an organisation which supports the early childhood workforce, to provide workshops for teachers on how to incorporate the robots into their curricula.
With the costs covered by Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative, AECES trains teachers for two and a half days. They then try what they’ve learned in the classroom, and return to the AECES centre for feedback.
The association aims to eventually train Singapore’s 17,000 preschool teachers.
Since the partnership began in 2017, only around 60 teachers have been taught, said AECES General Manager Ivy Kok.
The organisation is therefore embarking on a program of seminars and short introductory workshops to broaden the reach.
Once teachers are trained, the hope is that more and more preschools will buy the technology and incorporate it into their work.
In the modern economy, STEM skills like engineering and coding are at a premium.
Robots like Kibo and Bee-Bot could prove vital resources in education – and Singapore has taken the first big step in using them.