Most grown-ups don’t understand electrical circuits. But a new series of toys from the London-based educational toy company Technology Will Save Us aims to teach your four-year-old the basics of resistance, switches, and polarity–while using conductive dough to do it.
“It’s hard to get four- to seven-year-olds hands-on with electronics,” says Sadhbh Doherty, the lead kit designer at Technology Will Save Us. “We can’t have a four-year-old soldering, and their hands aren’t ready for things like breadboards.”
So Doherty and Technology Will Save Us’s designers came up with the Dough Universe, now launching on Kickstarter and which will be available commercially for the 2017 holiday season. Based off of the company’s most popular toy, which helps kids make conductive dough and shows them how to use it to turn on little lights, Dough Universe takes the idea to the next level. There’s the Squishy Sounds Kit, which helps kids make sounds using their dough, the Bright Creatures Kit, where they can make little LEDs light up, and the Electro Machines Kit, where they use a little controller to make a plastic wheeled vehicle move back and forth.
Each kit has a different plastic controller that does most of the work–the child just has to figure out how to complete the circuit. But each kit also offers a fundamental lesson in how circuits work. The sound kit teaches the idea of resistance, as adding different objects to the dough changes the sound the dough makes when the circuit is completed. The light kit shows that electricity only flows in a certain direction, so you’d better make sure your little LED lights are lined up the right way. And the movement kit’s controller acts like a switch: Touch the dough to one side and the wheels turn one way; touch the other side and the wheels move the other way. In the process of figuring out how to make them work, there’s a good chance kids won’t have any idea that they’re learning the fundamentals of electricity. They’ll just be playing.
But how do you test a product that’s meant for such a small kid? “Basically no matter how big a kid you think you are, you are not a four-year-old and you can’t imagine yourself as a four-year-old,” says Doherty. “It’s all about user testing as soon as possible.”
Their group of testers–mostly kids of friends or people who’ve bought the kits before and are now part of the company’s “Future Inventors Club”–have come up with some wildly creative ideas. One little girl created a figurine of a wolf that howled; another made a house that had lights in the windows. Yet another child created a makeshift game of Operation, where you had to remove objects from a dough figure’s body without touching the dough–but if you did, the sound would go off.
During user testing of the kits, the design team observed kids making musical instruments, door alarms, and meowing dough cats using the sound kit; disco party scenes or traffic lights with the light kit; and a spinning microwave dish, helicopter, and a monster truck out of the movement kit. Because the dough is completely malleable, the kits give kids the chance to use electricity to bring their imaginations to life.
Each kit comes with a digital app that provides some basic education on how to make the kit work, told as an interactive game where the child is the main character. It’s meant as a companion; once a kid understands how to use the kit, the app acts as a source of inspiration.
Instead of emphasizing computers and coding, which many STEM toys do, the Dough Universe kits focus on an older type of technology. “There’s this stealth learning on the journey, learning programming, circuits, resistance, which are fundamental to technology in so many ways,” says Technology Will Save Us’s cofounder and CEO, Bethany Koby. “If you play with it, there’s more chance they’ll be able to explore and understand these technologies in the future.”