COMMENTARY: World Maker Faire Is Where D-I-Y Meets T-O-Y-S!

MakerFaire,crowdshot,littleBitsThis past weekend, under terrific late-summer weather, the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., was the site of this year’s World Maker Faire. The massive, two-day-long science fair/state fair drew large crowds of hobbyists, educators, tech enthusiasts, and more. The exhibitors consisted of a wide range of crafty and tech-savvy folks working in a variety of medium—and they included quite a few toy companies.

Given that innovation and education are among the underlying principles of World Maker Faire—not to mention the larger “maker movement” as a whole—it wasn’t surprising to find many toys aimed at fostering intellectual curiosity in kids. It would take too much space to list them all, but here are three that struck my fancy. Each encourages learning in ways that are hands-on and inventive.

SparkleLabsSparkle Labs: The New York City-based company’s mission is to make science and engineering as approachable as possible. To that end, its Papertronics – Lunar Modules is an origami kit with cute designs on paper, to go with simple electronics that teach the basics of LED circuitry. Suitable for kids ages 8 and up, each kit includes all the materials necessary for three working lanterns: Spaceboy, Alien Girl, and Tabula Rasa.

I thought these toys were pretty neat. When completed, the top half can separate from the base—just like the original lunar module! Meanwhile, if there’s anything I find more intimidating than science and engineering, it’s origami; I can’t even fold a basic paper airplane. Luckily for all, Sparkle Labs provides a link to an online video that can take anyone step-by-step through the lantern-making process.

Another cool Sparkle Labs product is the Discover Electronics Kit, which was also on display for fair-goers. Each kit, which starts kids ages 10 and up down the road to learning about real-world circuits, includes more than 130 parts, as well as an illustrated guide for 16 different projects. One of the more awesome is a working mini-Theremin, which happened to be assembled. The sound emitted by the miniature noise-maker was manipulated by covering the kit’s photo-resistors, and it got at least one child asking their parents to buy the kit for them.

Admittedly, the mini-Theremin makes kind of a droning noise, but parents can rest easy knowing that at least it’s not a tuba. Kids and parents can visit Sparkle Labs’ virtual hacker space for online videos that enhance the Discover Electronics Kit experience.

Roominate2Roominate: Begun as a successful Kickstarter project by Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, two female engineering grad students with degrees from MIT, Caltech, and Stanford, Roominate’s goal was to create a dollhouse kit that would get young girls ages 6 and up interested in engineering and architecture. Mission accomplished so far: The line’s second generation launched in time for World Maker Faire and drew a sizable crowd—of girls and boys—with its Basic and Deluxe kits (though 10 more products are available online).

The latest iteration returns the candy-colored modular pieces and wall/floor panels that are the toy’s foundation, and kids can still add working details through wires and motors. However, subtle changes include holes in the orange connector pieces, which allow them to be used to create windmills and other objects that spin. In addition, the Deluxe kits now have a light that can be wired to make such decorative dollhouse pieces as, say, a Bunsen Burner.

I found the abstract design of Roominate to be especially compelling. If you handed me either of the kits, without any sort of accompanying data informing me that it was a dollhouse play set, I might not have guessed that’s what it was for. And to me, that’s part of what makes the line so neat: It lets kids fully indulge their imaginations when they create, rather than neatly corresponding to concepts that are familiar. (In the case of most traditional dollhouses, the moment you look at them, you know it’s a dollhouse.) Judging from the activity at Roominate’s Maker Faire booth, many of the kids on-hand weren’t necessarily thinking of dollhouses, either; we saw quite a few different structures, including a motorized plane and lit-up Golden Gate Bridge.

littleBits: This isn’t the first time The Toy Book has devoted space to littleBits, a New York City-based electronic building toy company. But for those who need a refresher, this construction toy line for ages 8 and up consists of color-coded, electronic modules that attach together by magnets. Each color indicates what that type of module does: blue ones are power sources, greens are outputs, etc. With littleBits, kids can build various projects that light up, move, or emit sound.

littleBits1It doesn’t take long to either get the color combinations down or to make interesting things start to happen—you only need two modules, really. As a result, it’s easy to start playing and to continuously build, but tough to put the pieces down and walk away! This was evident from the dozens of kids crowded at littleBits’ table, who kept reaching for new and different modules to snap together.

The newly launched littleBits Exploration Kits come in three sizes: Base, Premium, and Deluxe. Also, a representative for the company—possessed by the spirit of World Maker Faire, no doubt—helpfully stated that littleBits modules are open source and all schematics for their products are available online for eager young minds to dissect as they please.

Please don’t mistake this commentary for a comprehensive list of awesome toy exhibitors. There were lots of them, and if you’re interested, you can still find them at World Maker Faire’s “Meet the 2013 New York Makers” page. Go ahead and look; inquisitiveness, after all, is what the maker movement is all about.

For more commentary from Phil, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!