August 23, 2017

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The Best in Making and Tech at Toy Fair 2017

entrance

As I eagerly enter the massive convention center, I meet a few new friends!

What does a maker librarian do when she’s playing hooky? Visit the North American International Toy Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, of course! It’s no wonder that children aren’t allowed at the event, where more than 1,000 exhibitors from 100 countries converge to showcase more than 150,000 products for kids and kids at heart. It would be impossible to visit more than a handful of booths if my own kids were in tow! Even I had to put proverbial blinders on as I trekked on to find the products that had made my “must see” list.

Here are my top picks for maker spaces from the 2017 New York Toy Fair.

It all begins with a design

If you are new to maker spaces and don’t know where to begin, The Extraordinaires Design Studio kits by The Creativity Hub are a wonderful way to introduce design thinking to your students. Headed by cofounders and husband-wife team Rory O’Connor and Anita Murphy, The Creativity Hub has won numerous awards for its products, including the Dr. Toy Award, the Creative Child Seal of Excellence, and a blue ribbon at the World Maker Faire in NYC. As a school librarian and a former English teacher, I encourage my students to value the process over the product. These kits and supplementary downloadable graphic organizers provide enough structure for students, but are also adaptable to various learning situations. First, students learn about the needs of their fictitious clients, the Extraordinaires, and the environments where they live. Then they design a project based on the challenge they are faced with. Think cards help students refine their designs and consider alternative possibilities. Through these exercises, the students develop empathy for their characters as they realize that a design is only successful if it meets the needs of its user. These open-ended activities can be layered with low tech (cardboard, PlayDoh, LEGO) or high tech (3-D printers and electronics) materials. Librarians can also embed research, the inquiry process, and opportunities for presentation using these kits as a foundation. The mid-priced $39.95 deluxe kit is the core product for educators, perfect for a handful of students to engage in self-actualized, independent learning activities in the library, maker space, or classroom. To test the product, try the $19.95 compact kits. The full Extraordinaires Design Studio Pro kit retails for $79.95 and includes 24 Extraordinaires Cards, 30 Design Projects, 50 Think Cards, a drawing pad, two pens, and 120-page guidebook.

Build it and they will learn

Across the aisle from The Creativity Hub, I ventured to the Strawbees booth, where I had an awesome time learning about a simple, yet dynamic, building system. Originally a Kickstarter project in 2014, Strawbees has been a fan favorite at maker faires and is the brainchild of Swedish inventor Erik Thorstensson. Who can resist a simple design toy created with the plastic waste from IKEA’s lampshade production? In fact, these connectors for straws and cardboard were used to create installations in four themed rooms at the Nobel Prize after-party last December, and were given away to all 2,500 attendees. Prices range from $10 (200 straws or Creativity Cards) to kits that include a variety of straws and Strawbees ($20 for 200 pieces, $40 for 400 pieces, and $80 for 1,000 pieces). The Quirkbot for $119 includes motors, LEDs, and sensors, or you can combine littleBits or Makey Makey with Strawbees to make your creations move automatically. For $495 libraries, schools, and museums can create an endless supply of Strawbees by cutting any plastic waste using the Make Machine and two dies. Strawbees marble run and hovercraft kits will be added to the lineup soon.

The epic LEGO hacks

brickstix

Me with the proud mom of the young inventor of BrickStix.

So your students have an epic wall with boxes of LEGO bricks, and have completed every STEM challenge that you could devise. How can they “hack” these masterpieces of engineering to use them in new ways? Enter BrickStix, meeperBOTS, TinkerBots, and Flybrix.

Invented by Greyson MacLean when he was only nine years old, BrickStix are reusable and repositionable stickers that can add new life and personality to LEGO and DUPLO bricks. At $3.99 for two small sheets of stickers, ordinary bricks can be transformed into anything from zombies to library bookshelves. The product has won 10 awards. Teachers will find any excuse that they can to integrate LEGO bricks into their lessons with the comic, number, letter, early writer, and poetry kits. Let the storytelling begin!

Want to get your LEGO bricks moving? Try meeperBOTS or TinkerBots! MeeperBOTS cost $54.99 each, come in a variety of tire colors, and are available through library supplier Demco. Each meeperBOT is powered by two motors and is controlled by the meeperBOT controller app. Up to eight meeperBOTs can be controlled by a single device using Bluetooth. The app uses a simple Scratch-like drag-and-drop format and includes a tutorial. Inventor Jim Brandon has taken his fully funded January 2016 Kickstarter project from the reality of a robot to a hacking space this year with the Meeper Maker Space. Children can 3-D print custom bricks for their robots, learn about wiring and electronics, and even invite their friends for a birthday party. For Jim, meeperBOTS are not just robots, but a platform for modifying.

German-based Tinkerbots are more versatile than meeperBOTs, but that comes with a price tag ranging from $169.95 to $469.95. Tinkerbots was a Toy of the Year finalist in 2017, and maker librarians will find them similar in look to Cubelets. The Arduino-compatible Powerbrain includes a USB chargeable battery, speaker, and gyro-sensor, with LED/button and serial bus interfaces connected by Bluetooth. The hub can connect up to six modules at once. Robot design can be modified using a variety of Cubies, axles and wheels, and brick adaptors. Children can control their creations through the app in remote control or sensor mode. Because programming can only be accomplished through an Arduino, Tinkerbots is recommended for older students than meeperBOTS.

LEGO

Take a close look at Captain America. He’s made entirely of LEGO!

Now, LEGO bricks can take flight through the much-anticipated Flybrix program. For $189 for the basic kit, you will have everything you need to build your LEGO drone and fly it using the app on your mobile device. The $249 deluxe kit includes the R/C controller. No soldering is needed, and drones can be customized by adding a variety of LEGO pieces. Flybrix is open source, and advanced learners can program the Arduino development program.

An organized maker space is efficient and welcoming, but what happens when the class is over and your students are scrambling to clean up? Enter the solution: the Lay-n-Go storage system! These fabric circles ranging in size from 13” in diameter ($19.95) to 60” ($64.95) transform with a pull of a cord into instant carrying cases. They make cleanup of everything from K’Nex to art supplies simple.

Up, up, and away!

Folding a paper airplane has to be one of the oldest and most universal maker activities. But Shai Goitein has finally taken paper airplanes to the next level. With three different options, any kid can now power up their paper airplanes with a miniature motor. The basic kit, PowerUp 2.0 ($16.99), will fly a paper airplane for 30 seconds after a 20 second charge. To pilot your airplane with a smartphone app, try the PowerUp 3.0 ($49.99) with Bluetooth smart module. For the ultimate flying experience, top gun wannabes can sit (virtually) in the cockpit of their paper airplanes with the PowerUp FPV setup ($199.99). With twin motors, a Wi-Fi camera, and Google cardboard viewer, users can control their paper creations just by moving their head in the desired direction. This may just turn out to be your students’ favorite engineering and physics lessons ever.

Coding, coding, 1, 2, 3

By this point in my Toy Fair adventure, I began to notice a pattern: Kickstarter projects, Maker Faire faves, and European innovation. And SAM Labs and Cubetto fit right in.

Winner of six awards, including the CES Innovation Award for 2017, SAM Labs doesn’t look all that distinctive at first. So I asked the UK-based team, “What really makes you different?” The answer: SAM Labs modules are independently charged. They need to be coded through downloadable software and limited apps, but SAM Labs allows for a wide range of possibilities since the modules communicate with one another wirelessly through Bluetooth technology. What I especially appreciate about this platform is the intuitive coding application, which is based on drag and drop, flow-based programming. Once a block is turned on, it will appear in the app. Pairing is automatic on smartphones and tablets; it must be selected on desktops. You can even integrate Facebook and Twitter, and write programs using Javascript. Prices (Inventor Kit is $139; Curious Kit is $199) are comparable to other coding kits, and there are a variety of tutorial videos available.

When I met Filippo Yacob, CEO and founder of Primo Toys, I quickly learned that Cubetto was a toy with a lot more heart behind it than it might appear. Cubetto is the most crowdfunded educational invention, raising $1.59 million from 6,553 backers. It’s perfect for little learners because it combines Montessori learning principles with computer programming concepts. A basic kit sells for $225 and includes a Cubetto robot, a board, 16 primary-colored blocks (four each of forward, right, left, and function), a world map, and a storybook. Without flashing screens and distracting noises, Cubetto offers children as young as three opportunities to program using tactile blocks without having to read. With a clean, modern look, Cubetto welcomes children to the world of robots through engaged play. Trust me: I’ve seen a lot of robots in my day. What stood out for me was that Cubetto is a robot made out of wood, not plastic. Why? According to Yacob, wood is warmer to the touch and the color ages with time. It shows scratches and dents, like badges of honor, making Cubetto a natural progression from the building blocks found in toy boxes. Prepared to be charmed by Cubetto. 

Making sense

My last picks for maker spaces are a variety of building materials that appeal to the senses, created by Play Visions. You won’t be able to resist squishing handfuls of Sands Alive, Floof, and Play Dirt.

Kinetic sand has been a trend for a number of years, but Sands Alive’s texture sculptures keep their shape longer. You can bring the beach inside during the winter months or to landlocked areas with this non-toxic, anti-bacterial material that won’t stain. It picks up easily off floors and carpets.

Floof

Marshmallow-like Floof is irresistible to play with.

To make snowballs during the summer try Floof; color-changing Floof is also available. Who can resist playing in the dirt without the mess? Play Dirt is the newest product in the Play Visions line of mushy, moldable material.

Lastly, check out the full line of Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty. You can make your own putty with a kit or choose from a variety of about 50 different selections including magnetic, phantom, liquid glass, super illusion, hypercolor, and glow in the dark. Thinking Putty is safe for children and contains no latex, gluten, wheat compounds, or phthalates.

None of these stress-relieving compounds by Play Visions or Crazy Aaron will dry out, but the Thinking Putty will stain. You can start sculpting for as little as $10 with all of these (though the Real Gold Thinking Putty will set you back $250 for one-fifth of a pound that includes a gram of pure, powdered 24-karat gold). Children diagnosed with autism and other special needs will likely find these compounds irresistible.

Check out my virtual look at the North American International Toy Fair.

CRITERIA FOR SELECTIONS
flexibility: can be used by students of various ages and academic abilities
adaptability: can be used in a variety of ways and provide students with opportunities for growth and challenges
creativity: inspires students to apply their learning in new ways
purchase price: economical per student use
staying power: will remain relevant and spark student interest over time
maintenance and operating cost: repair and consumables costs are inexpensive
support: company is responsive and friendly, offering resources and materials for educators
innovative: product stands out in its category

 


Kristina Holzweiss is the school library media specialist at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School and 2015 School Librarian of the Year. She also received the Lee Bryant Outstanding Teacher Award by New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education and the Fred Podolski Leadership and Innovation in Technology Award by the Long Island Technology Summit. She is the founder and director of SLIME (Students of Long Island Maker Expo). Check out her website. Follow her on Twitter at @lieberrian, Reach her at kholzweiss@bayshoreschools.org.

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