Inside Singapore's plans for robots in pre-schools

How a bold new scheme is teaching tech skills to 6 year olds.

“ICE CREAM!” A group of six year olds are grinning as a small girl holds a laminated picture in her hands. Calmly, she puts it down and picks up the robot bee sitting in front of her. It has five buttons on top: forwards, left, right, back and go. The girl prods a few of them in turn, puts the bee down and presses go. It trundles across a colourful mat, turns left and stops on a picture of an ice cream cone. Everyone cheers. This short exercise has just taught her basic vocabulary, logic, sequencing and navigation. The robotic bee is one of four high-tech toys being trialled with pre-school children across Singapore. It is part of a new scheme - called Playmaker - using technology to give the next generation skills the they require. GI caught up with with the educators, technologists and government officials behind the scheme to find out more. Busy bees Playmaker has been running since last September, starting with trials at an experimental pre-school run by Temasek Polytechnic. Ten toys were shortlisted after an international research exercise, and these were narrowed down to four successful candidates by a team of officials. “How many people can say their job is to curate toys?” asks Adrian Lim, director of education at the IDA. His team oversaw the project: researching the latest tools, testing them at Temasek, and finalising a shortlist to trial in an ordinary pre-school. [blockquote]“How many people can say their job is to curate toys?” [/blockquote] None of the toys requires a computer screen, Lim stresses. Research shows that young children should only spend 2 hours a day using a screen - including use at home. “For pre-schoolers, you really want to encourage social interaction and build communication skills. Passively facing a screen isn’t the best idea,” Lim explains. The toys are currently being tested by the Yuhua PCF pre-school in the Jurong Lake district. It was chosen, the IDA has said, because it is a school with low fees rather than one of Singapore’s most expensive pre-schools. Next year, a $1.5m scheme will see the toys used in a further 160 pre-schools across the island. The tests have ensured that teachers can incorporate the toys into lesson plans, and pulled together a mix of complex robots and simple tools - encouraging pupils to develop a range of skills. Meet the robots To prepare children for their lessons, the school used a very simple piece of technology: the book. Teachers read them stories about technology, including the popular hit Boy + Bot. “When the teacher read the book the kids were already excited about interacting with the robot,” Lim says. The lessons should feel special to them, he believes, rather than just an ordinary part of their day. So what are these four toys that Lim’s team has chosen? 1. BeeBot beebotfinal The Beebot toy improves children’s language skills, mathematics, teamwork and logic, says Mary Herath, the Principal of the pre-school which is testing the toys. Her school uses it in two exercises, one requiring word recognition, and the other for maths problems. The school uses two different mats, one with squares made up of numbers, and another with squares of images. The children pull cards out of a bag that either state a word or a simple maths test (for example, “3 and 2 make”) and a child programmes the robot to move to the right answer. This toy is the most popular with the children, says Principal Herath. “They are very happy when playing with toys so BeeBot is best because it’s like a toy, but we also believe that children learn through play.” Before this, her school taught vocabulary by showing word cards to the class and asking the children to write them down. “It’s less fun,” she admits. 2. Kibo KIBOfinal Kibo was designed by researchers at Tuft’s University’s world-renowned Department of Child Study and Human Development. The four-wheeled wooden robot has sensors to detect light and sound, and a bar code scanner. Children at the pre-school piece together wooden blocks with instructions printed on them. These are then scanned underneath the Kibo’s barcode scanner, and the robot follows these in turn. This exercise teaches sequencing, Lim says, which is useful in computer programming. Further, research shows that when a young child is trained to understand logical sequences, they improve their reading comprehension. And using blocks of instructions is also proven to help children understand abstract mathematical ideas. 3. Dash and Dot DASHfinal This robot is the most complex of the tools, and the one least used by the teachers. The children in Yuhua mostly used it to chase me around their classroom using a remote control. Dash and Dot has not yet been fully rolled out into lesson plans, Lim explains. It has a complex suite of sensors, and requires instructions to be programmed by the children. Lim’s team intend that more advanced children will move onto this robot after learning on the Kibo. “We thought we might want to stretch them at a later stage,” he says. According to Ms Nabilah, one of the teachers, the toy has to navigate an obstacle course, which gets progressively more complicated. It teaches motor skills and sequential learning through programming the toy and making it navigate a track. 4. Circuit stickers circuitmakersone The fourth toy is the simplest of all of them by far, but also Principal Mary’s favourite. “They can learn something new, and because they will need science in Primary One, I think it’s the best,” she says. The toy consists of pieces of copper tape, watch batteries, and LED lights. Lim’s team have created exercises for the children to use the tape to decorate greetings cards and light them up when a battery is connected. “We are trying to change the idea of what technology means in pre-school, from a screen-based approach to a maker-centered approach,” Lim - a former school principal - says. “Pre-school children learn primarily through active participation, exploration and experimentation,” he adds.[blockquote]“We don’t want children to consume knowledge through technology: we want them to create things” [/blockquote] The kit taps into a new “maker movement,” where children and adults alike are being encouraged to experiment with low-cost hardware to create new tools. “We don’t want children to consume knowledge through technology: we want them to create things,” Lim says. What’s next? Starting next January, the scheme will be rolled out 10% of pre-schools in Singapore. This programme will be split into two phases, with the results carefully monitored, Lim says. “As with any science experiment, we start with observation,” he says. The two pilots have shown small wins, both in pupil engagement and parent feedback. Using 160 schools will “allow us to take this to the next level.” IDA will commission a piece of research to judge the programme’s effectiveness, and see how it could be expanded across the country. “160 schools is only the tip of the iceberg for us,”he says. The biggest challenge is ensuring that teachers understand how to incorporate the tools into their lesson plans. “We are not going to see success if we don’t get that right,” Lim says - regardless of the quality of the tools and the overall strategy. [blockquote] "We are not going to see success if we don't get that right" [/blockquote] The IDA will therefore host a symposium to pull all of the teachers together, explain the logic behind the programme and share lesson plans. They also want teachers to share their feedback and ideas. Lim’s team, meanwhile, will continue to scan for new toys that emerge on the market. Currently the toys all come from America, he says, but the IDA would like to collaborate with local companies. “We think there’s a huge market for this,” Lim says. “We want to inspire others to come into the industry.” Countries around the world are looking to provide young children with the skills they will require in a digital age. This scheme is a novel approach and tackles recent OECD fears of teachers merely “tablet-sitting” pupils during technology classes. For the Playmaker team, children should not learn about the products currently available in stores. They should learn about the principles behind them. While the scheme is using robots, the children must not be treated like them. Instead, it is hoped that these tools will make lessons feel electric.