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Make Your Own Furby

Published in the May 1999 issue of Curriculum Administrator

There are two technology revolutions sweeping the society one visible and the other invisible. Both trends have enormous implications for the future of schooling. Most people understand that computers (PCs – the ones with CPUs, keyboards and monitors) have become a pervasive force in our culture, creating all sorts of new opportunities and challenges. The second less visible trend is towards everyday objects endowed with memory, processing power and communications abilities. I recently discovered that our home has fourteen compact disk players – in clock radios, computers, game machines, stereo music systems and my car. It may not be long before toasters have CD drives in them. All sorts of functionality are added to household appliances as the cost of digital technology falls.

And the children shall lead...

While Moore’s Law offers a glimpse at a not too distant future filled with PCs the price of sneakers, I recommend that educators spend some time in their local Toys ‘R Us. Not only will they gain insights into the culture of children, but you will get a sense of the importance digital technology plays in their lives. The highly competitive toy industry has always been a hotbed of creative and engineering innovation. The toys of tomorrow are just as likely to say "Intel Inside" as "Batteries Not Included."

Play is the work of children while toys ignite creativity, curiosity, experimentation and social development. Children learn a great deal by playing with toys.

Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab, points out that 75 percent of toys are new, meaning newly designed each year. This rate of invention keeps pace with the rapid development of digital technologies. He goes on to talk about the need for a toy networking standard so those toys may interact with one another since "if each Mickey Mouse and Barbie had an IP address, their population would exceed that of a small well-connected country." Since today’s typical toy has a retail price of about $20, the challenge is to make a $5 computer that may not even look or act like a computer. The challenge for the computer industry is to "melt a Cray down into a Crayola." Such developments are sure to reduce the price of general purpose computing and make access more ubiquitous - whether paid for by the school district or carried in the pocket of a seven year-old. (Check out the amazing research being conducted by MIT’s Toys of Tomorrow Project at

Today, I begin my graduate teacher education classes by displaying the following items:
$29 MIDI keyboard with sequencing software
$59 Barbie Digital Camera
$49 Pressure-sensitive drawing tablet
$199 LEGO programmable brick systems
$79 Barney, Arthur or Pooh dolls that play, sing and converse with the child
$12 Hotwheels with onboard computers
$3 Tamagotchis and Digimon
$29 Furbys

My students play with these toys in order to familiarize themselves with the world of kids and to discuss their implications for student learning. It is easy to predict that students will have increasing qualitative and quantitative expectations for classroom computing – computers need to do more and there needs to be more of them.

The question isn’t whether computers will be the price of Nikes, but what happens when kids have computers in their Air Jordans? Read Neil Gershenfeld's new book, When Things Start to Think, for more about innovations such as shoe computers powered by walking and body networks capable of exchanging business cards by shaking hands.

For many students the weekly visit to the school computer lab is like a fieldtrip to Colonial Williamsburg where they are greeted by a nice adult wearing a silly costume who uses primitive tools and pretends that the nineteenth century never existed. At best school computing often takes the form of a history lesson, at worst a farce.

Wise planning should ensure that students have maximum access to appropriate technologies at school. Perhaps schools should invest in the sorts of technology kids don’t have access to everywhere else. After all, school is the place where you go to use Microscopes, tubas and kilns. The hard cold truth is that schools can not possibly keep up with Silicon Valley, let alone Mattel.

Would you Like a Free Sprint PCS Cellular Phone with that Today, Sir?

While in a Radio Shack to purchase a few dollars worth of batteries, I received a wake-up call from the digital future. While paying for my purchase, the clerk literally asked, " would you Like a Free Sprint PCS Cellular Phone with that Today, Sir?

I was just buying batteries! Can you imagine what they'll be throwing in with a Big Mac?

Kids are burning their own CDs on $200 CD recorders while their teachers whine that iMacs don’t contain floppy drives. Just as teachers with personal cellphones no longer have to ask permission to make a phone call, kids with portable computers and smart toys will transcend the learning opportunities offered by their schools. Concerns about technological equity will be alleviated. Schools should view the wired community and personal computing devices as resources and find ways to use them to enhance the education of children.

Don’t Bring that to School!

Schools have a nasty tendency to ban anything children like. If safety can’t be blamed, potential classroom disruption is always a convenient rationale. One school where every student is required to own a personal laptop actually banned Tamagotchis by invoking the school’s prohibition against electronic devices at school. You can’t make this stuff up.

Where cooler heads prevailed, imaginative teachers saw the digital pet craze as an opportunity to explore concepts from biology, mathematics, psychology and computer science by asking students to program their own virtual pets. Great teachers know what is possible when you seize upon what kids are excited about and connect it to knowledge you would like them to acquire.

Imagine the physics experiments made possible by a $12 HotWheels car that can measure distance and velocity. I wonder if you can buy a class set of HotWheels?

The growing availability of "smart toys" should inspire educators to:
a) find ways to incorporate them into the "school-based" learning objectives
b) provide a glimpse into the future of what computational and communications technology may offer
c) invite us to expect more value, quality and performance from the technology we do purchase - Toys don't crash - well, perhaps HotWheels do.

Making Magic

Five year-old John Richardson uses MicroWorlds to tell stories, create insect reports and even design copies of his favorite commercial software products like The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. Making software is not beyond the imagination of young kids. Why not make your LEGO rocket fly on the computer screen? If a kid can play firefighter or astronaut, why not software designer. In the past it was impossible for pre-readers to program computers. Our limited imaginations deny even more children such opportunities.

Kids like John can hatch turtles, design turtle costumes, paint backgrounds, create multiple pages, compose music and record narration and sound effects without assistance. They can even create simple animations by typing the commands prepared on teacher-made reference cards. Like construction toys, MicroWorlds allows simple elements to be combined to solve complex problems.

After John creates all of his desired objects, he directs his Dad in how to program motion and interactivity. This process is quite similar to when pre-writers dictate a story to an older student or adult. However, a MicroWorlds project requires the use of mathematical processes, different senses and action. (Environments like Stagecast and Hyperstudio may also be used to develop different sorts of software.)

The success of such projects is dependent on three factors:
d) sufficient computer access
e) adult support
f) a great open-ended software environment

Lessons from Furbyland

A Furby is a cute cuddly (or annoying depending on your perspective) five inch high furball that was last Christmas’ hottest toy sensation. This stuffed animal can animate its body parts, dance and speak its own language, Furbish. You communicate with the Furby by speaking Furbish to it. The more Furbish you speak, the more English it understands. The Furby learns if it is well cared for, loved and played with. Best of all, if your friend brings her Furby to visit, the assembled Furbish congregation speaks with each other. They tell jokes, gossip and share secrets. The Furby may mark the beginning of interactive social toys. Remember that this hairy computer, complete with speech, speech recognition, memory, motors and sensors costs $29. School keyboarding class increasingly more like a game while toys look more and more like learning with computers.

Dr. Idit Harel points out that Furbys create all sorts of new learning opportunities for kids. Kids use multiple intelligences to figure out how the thing works through tinkering and experimentation. The Furby requires you to learn how it works in ways similar to children’s early developmental stages. New features and levels of complexity are discovered over time and kids enhance their natural curiosity with more formal scientific processes as they try to predict the behavior of the Furbys in response to different stimuli or settings. Opportunities for social dramatic play are expanded when collections of Furbys introduce new behaviors and personality traits. Kids develop all sorts of language skills by learning, speaking and understanding the language of their Furbish friend. Best of all, the Furby recognizes a child’s desire for hard-fun. Learning that is inextricably linked to a challenge worth conquering.

Using LEGO’s new Mindstorms programmable brick, students can build their own Furbys. Add some felt and feathers to the motors, lights, sensors and computerized brick and you can engineer your own creature. Imagine the learning possibilities involved in such a process. We could fill a scope and sequence chart with the achievable cross-curricular objectives.

After little kids spend a few years "messing-about" with constructionist and smart toys they will have the fluency required for tackling more complex problem solving in specific school subjects. The use of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression will become second-nature. These children will appreciate the intellectual satisfaction and joy associated with teaching the computer to do something it may never have done before. Even if the final product pales in comparison to the "real thing" kids will own the learning associated with the endeavor and take great pride in their work.

We are at the dawn of an exciting age of digitally enhanced learning. Seize the opportunity play a little. It will do you and your students good.


Harel, Idit. (1998) Furbys — It’s Just the Beginning.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1998) Toys of Tomorrow. Wired Magazine. March 1998.

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