Kits let kids add science, engineering, math to art explorations

During two decades of designing high-tech tools to encourage children's creativity, Mitchel Resnick has found robots disappointing in one respect: They rarely appeal to girls or to kids unexcited by science.

''Lots of kids like to play with robots, but not all kids," says Resnick, an associate professor of learning research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That observation got him and fellow researchers in MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten project to imagine ''something with an artistic twist that would engage a wider range of kids than just classical robots."

Their brainchild makes its debut today as the Playful Invention Co. begins taking orders online for its new Cricket kits, which are designed to build on kids' interest in art and music while bringing science, math, and engineering into their artistic exploration. For $250, children get a box of tools that will allow them to customize countless creations that sing, move, and flicker in response to changes in their environment.

Unlike most other electronic toys, which are preprogrammed to react to certain stimuli, the Cricket can be programmed again and again, to perform whatever functions a child can imagine.

Children ages 9 and older use a PC to string commands together in a puzzle-piece sequence designed to make programming simple and intuitive. They write a program and send it via a USB cable to a detachable beamer, which a child can unplug and carry to wherever the Cricket is set up. With a push of a button, much like on a TV remote, the beamer delivers the Cricket a new set of instructions. A child can tell it to sound an alarm when the lights go on, for instance, or spin a decorated wheel when nearby voices get loud.

Scholars are welcoming the Cricket not so much as a pricey toy but for what it represents: a step forward in enabling kids to be not just consumers of technological systems but designers of them.

''Until now, most of the focus on educational technology for kids has been on software and multimedia," says Marina Bers, assistant professor of child development at Tufts University. ''That's OK, but it isn't really helping them understand the world around us. [Cricket] technology can help so [kids] don't have to wait until they're in college to explore these concepts" behind sensors, robots, and automation.

Eight-year-old Ciarra Duffy of Chelsea has already begun. She's been testing Crickets at her local Boys & Girls Club of Boston for the past year. During the trial, she made a birthday cake from construction paper and cardboard for a 2-year-old boy's birthday. The party-stopper was the Cricket, which she programmed to hide inside and play ''Happy Birthday" on command.

''I felt really happy because a lot of people were checking it out to see how it worked," Ciarra said. Another benefit: She says she now understands how automatic doors work.

At MIT's Media Lab, where singing Crickets elicit chuckles from otherwise focused graduate students, Resnick shows off photos of memorable Cricket projects and their creators. In one shot, a girl shows how a light beam, when broken, sets off an alarm. In another one, a boy shows how he makes a toilet paper roll spin just by raising his voice.

Just as LEGO's robot construction kits were a precursor for the Cricket, so also is the Cricket a precursor for things to come, Resnick says. Lifelong Kindergarten is exploring how to make programming systems accessible enough that all kids, no matter how disadvantaged or technophobic, can easily learn to design animated films and video games.

Meanwhile, participants who've tested Crickets at six museums across the country are grateful just to have seen robotic technology set free -- at least in its presentation -- from the domain of science whizzes.

The Cricket ''is not so geeky as to keep people from experimenting with it," says R.L. ''Chip" Lindsey, vice president of creative development at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Wherever Crickets are tested, he says, ''all of a sudden it's an art studio, and -- oh, by the way, there's technology involved."

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company