Tag Archives: children

Makers. Creativity. Learning. LEGO FTW.

It began, as these things sometimes do, with a childhood passion.

One of my earliest memories is of kneeling on the floor at the back of my bedroom making LEGO cars – it was in version 1.0 of my bedroom as I grew up, before new furniture and decoration. I must have been about 4, or 5. I had a castle, knights, some space stuff including base boards with little moulded “craters”… lots of fun as a child.

When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

I’d long known that many of my friends and colleagues have remained huge LEGO fans (Cerys has just blogged about her interest; Ben made some fun timelapse videos of building his Christmas present). For me, a key moment was Roo‘s 3 minute masterpiece of a paean to the medium at Interesting in 2008, embedded here for your enjoyment. Listen to the audio slidecast – closest you can get to having been there, and Roo did a wonderful (and amusing!) job.

Also, a memorable talk at the CRIM Crystal Ball Conference in Montreal in April 2010 (at which I also spoke) came from then Professor of Innovation at LEGO Group, David Robertson – a tale of Rebuilding LEGO, and how the company had saved itself from bankruptcy by refocusing on its core values and customer needs. It was a fantastic story and I was rapt.

More recently, I went along to the Internet of Things meetup in London last month, and was delighted to see Ken “monsonite” Boak – creator of the Nanode, a fantastic UK-grown prototyping platform akin to Arduino – use LEGO as his metaphor for a talk exploring Open Source electronics. Ken was kind enough to pop his slides up on Slideshare today, so you can take a look. He’d just been out to get some LEGO the previous weekend…

That talk was more-or-less the moment when I realised – I needed some LEGO. I wanted some. Both as a way of seeing where things had gone to, and to help me to prototype things, and just… well… just because! I’d already started to use dioramas featuring minifigs in a couple of presentations recently and had good feedback, so I figured that was another excuse 🙂

So, on Saturday I decided to dip back into my passion for LEGO. It started with a bucket of bricks from the nearest toy shop… but then I noticed the LEGO Star Wars sets with slight discounts[1]… and I figured well, obviously I’d need some wheels of some kind so picked up some City sets… and some of the foil-bag Minifigures…

The splurge quickly developed into a binge via a @darachennis-inspired trip to the LEGO store in Westfield White City on Sunday… picking-and-mixing bricks from the back wall, and signing up for the VIP program. There may be no hope left for me…

Celt Bucket o' bricks LEGO splurge

So what have I learned?

  • Minifigs are brilliant. The aforementioned David Robertson gave me his business card, his details printed on a minifig resembling him, in Montreal in 2010 and that reawakened my interest. When I was a kid they all had the same pair of staring eyes and identical pleasant non-threatening smile, but the range of looks and expressions now available make them as much fun to customise as the full sets.
  • People talk about the beauty of Apple’s designs – both inside and outside of the product (not that I’ve ever cracked open an iPhone to look inside). LEGO is blocky and “harsh”… but the designs and assembly process is beautiful. Assembling little cars and other sets on Saturday evening, following simple pictorial instructions, I realised that every piece had a place and it all fitted together wonderfully, perfectly. That (re)discovery had me as delighted as an adult, with a more architectural and design-oriented brain, as I was as a kid with the sheer enjoyment of being able to build and modify things.
  • In my opinion, all kids should be given some LEGO, and allowed to build the models from the boxes themselves (much though I’m sure as an involved adult I’d be itching to take over!). I’ve blogged recently about my excitement for the maker culture, and this is really where it can all begin.
  • I need to keep an eye on my bank balance, and a check on my excitement. I love it, but I bought it for “professional” reasons… 🙂

Last week, the UK Government announced that ICT courses would be replaced with Computer Science, including a programming element (one of the campaigns I’ve been passionate about). At an event from The Education Foundation in London the next day – The Future of Technology Education – I was privileged to hear one of my personal heroes Ian Livingstone (of Fighting Fantasy books, Games Workshop and Eidos fame) speak and refer to “digital Meccano” – and I owned Meccano as a child too.  He also highlighted the need to combine science and art to push the digital boundaries.

Here’s what I think: we should be giving children a choice of physical LEGO, Meccano, and other toys; encouraging their creativity and building skills; and helping them to bridge between both the digital and physical worlds. No child should be excluded, and none should be pushed down a particular path. We should be supporting and helping every child to discover their passions and explore them; recognising that not every individual will want to program, or draw, paint, build, or write – but never belitting anyone for their talents or interests.

I’ve rarely been as excited about the future than I have been right now!

[1] as a child in in the 1980s I owned significant numbers of the Palitoy Star Wars figures and vehicles[2]. Whoever thought of combining LEGO and Star Wars is a genius – so much MORE FUN than the original, inflexible, non-customisable toys. So much more interactive, and through the video games, adding a humorous new twist on the Star Wars saga. LOVE.

[2] … I never had the Millennium Falcon or the Death Star, though… always wanted those…

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Youngsters, social media, and online privacy

While I was driving to work this morning I listened to a piece on Radio 4 about an Ofcom study published today (also reported on the BBC News website). The report and interview on the Today programme was essentially suggesting that children in the UK are routinely sharing too much personal information on social networking sites. One mother interviewed said that she didn’t really understand the privacy settings on the social networks her son used, that she trusted him, and then admitted that she had “abdicated responsibility” for his use of the sites.

It was another of those segments that made me gnash my teeth and make comments at the radio. While I very strongly believe that children (and their parents) do need to be well-informed about the ways to make effective use of social networks and how to protect themselves online, I wanted to share an interesting experience that may indicate that the problem may not be as bad as the media makes out.

During the Blue Fusion event we ran at IBM Hursley recently, I spent a day running an activity that was all about identity theft and online privacy. The idea of the game was that the students were given a single piece of information – someone’s name – and then had to see how much they could find out about them through social engineering: web searches, finding paper information, or passing themselves off as various official organisations in roleplays. It was entirely contrived, of course… the designers of the activity had deliberately setup a social network profile for the person with “just enough” data to put the youngsters on the right track, and then laid a bunch of other clues based on the individual being quite hapless (not shredding documents, giving out personal data entirely too freely, etc). It was a lot of fun to run, and also brilliantly put together.

At the end of the activity I made a point of bringing the teams together and talking to them about how careless use of social networks could theoretically provide openings to identity theft. We had a short Q&A session that revolved around what networks they used (interestingly, most of them were on Bebo or MySpace, and not Facebook), and what kinds of information they shared. Home addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth were not generally on the list, which was a bit of a relief! The overriding impression I got from the exercise was that these students had a high degree of common sense… not that I’m saying that the sample group should be taken as indicative of every UK student, but their degree of online literacy was highly impressive.

On top of today’s Ofcom study, whilst I was at Male’ airport on the way back from vacation I caught a snippet on Sky News covering last week’s publication of the Byron Review. There’s a lovely statement in the Executive Summary of the review:

Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.

Again, from what I’ve read I think I broadly agree with some of the findings, but the point at which the teeth-gnashing comes in is where the report (and the media) start to talk about regulation, which just seems to me to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet. Educate, don’t always seek to regulate.

The question is: just who needs educating here? The adults, the children, or the media? I think it’s obvious that today’s youngsters are streets ahead of most of their parents in terms of online literacy. I hope their parents can be persuaded to keep up, and not to attempt to crack down. And I hope the need for a weekly scare story about social networks can actually subside at some point this year – seriously, it’s getting old.

Apparently the Home Office is due to publish a set of recommendations later this week. I await their thoughts with a mixture of interest and dread.