Interactive cuddly toys

June 24, 2003

When it comes to communicating with a computer, children find it just as easy to use an interactive soft toy as a mouse, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC. This research is published today as a part of the ESRC's Social Science Week.

In studies, children seemed to take it for granted that a toy could communicate with a computer, and it was the adults who were more impressed, says the report of a study led by Dr Lydia Plowman of the University of Stirling and Dr Rosemary Luckin at the University of Sussex.

The toys chosen for the research were based on Arthur and his sister DW - two aardvark characters from the Marc Brown stories, targeted at children aged between four and eight. No longer available on the market, and never sold in the UK, the toys appeared like traditional soft toys but had a vocabulary of some 4000 words on their own, and 10,000 words when used with the computer. They had motors so that they could move, and a ROM chip so that they could respond to actions by children such as squeezing the hand, toe or ear.

Known as CACHET (Computers and Children's Electronic Toys), the project allowed close examination of the use of technologies by very young children, unlike most previous research which has looked at youngsters over the age of eight.

Because the toys could be used alone or with a computer, researchers had extra scope for examining children's responses. Dr Plowman said:"We found that children can co-ordinate the multiple links between toy and screen and don't appear to get confused. In fact, when it came to the unique selling point of the interaction between the computer and the toy, children rarely thought this anything special."

However, if the toy was being played with away from the computer, some actions became annoying for the youngsters. For instance, the toy took a long time to stop talking after the child had stopped responding. So some children preferred to play with it turned off - making it no different from any ordinary cuddly toy.

In nearly all cases when used without the computer, interest in the toy fell fairly quickly, even though the children had probably not fully explored its vocabulary.

According to the study, the toy acted as a limited source of help and encouragement for how to interact with the software, but children nearly always preferred a human helper such as a friend, sibling or parent.

In experiments, both with pairs of children and with individuals, the youngsters interacted with the researcher in the classroom more than three times more often when using the software with the toy.

When more than one child used them, the toy encouraged interaction both between the children and with the computer.

The report points out, however, that children in this classroom-based part of the study were aged only four. It is less certain that older children are as interested in interacting with the toy.

Said Dr Plowman: "Using touchable technology, such as the soft toy, may be a way of encouraging very young children to interact with computers, especially if advances in technology can make responses more accurate.

"However, there was no convincing evidence that the toys promoted learning, even though this was a marketing angle."
-end-
For further information:

Contact Dr Lydia Plowman on 01786-467619, e-mail: lydia.plowman@stir.ac.uk,
Dr Rosemary Luckin on 01273-678647, e-mail: rosel@cogs.susx.ac.uk
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at the ESRC on 01793-413119 /413122

Notes for editors

1. Social Science Week 2003, from the 23rd to the 27th June, is about revitalising policy by bringing social scientists and their research together with policy-makers. Events in various locations will showcase a broad array of ESRC research. Topics will cover a wide spectrum, from the state of UK business to climate change and arms control. For a programme visit http://www.esrc.ac.uk/socialscienceweek or call David Ridley, External Relations, on 01793-413118.

2. The research report 'Exploring And Mapping Interactivity With Digital Toy Technology' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr. Plowman is at the Institute of Education, University of Stirling, STIRLING, Scotland FK9 4LA

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is http://www.esrc.ac.uk

4. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://www.regard.ac.uk.

Economic & Social Research Council

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