I have a confession to make — I can’t stand hobby kits. I look at them with as much loathing as Professor Snape reserved for Harry Potter. Although beautifully packaged, these kits are rarely Do-It-Yourself – everything comes pre-prepared, all the child has to do is cut, fold and glue the bits-and-bobs together. It makes me yearn for long summer days when to construct a candy stick pencil stand or a pistachio shell cottage, we had to make our way through countless mango dollies, choco-bars and salted dried fruits. Now, everything’s bundled neatly into a bag along with specific instructions. Somehow the idea of innovation and experimentation has got buried under mounds of cookie-cutter DIY kits.
Which is why I was excited about the MaKey Makey , an invention kit I bought for my nephew on the recommendation of a friend’s eight-year-old daughter. The kit comes from the hallowed MIT Media Lab and had promise written all over it. MaKey MaKey has been developed by two students, Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum, who crowdsourced money on Kickstarter to raise funds for the project. When my nephew ripped apart the wrapping paper, we both opened the box with barely concealed excitement. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment as I picked my way through the circuit board, USB cable, alligator clips and jumper wires. I paid three grand for this?
Perplexed, we took to the Internet to help us make sense of what looked like a jumble of wires. We pulled up an online piano page, and hooked up the MaKey MaKey to the computer. Next, we raided the kitchen. My mother came running out, wondering why we needed the French beans that she was prepping for lunch. We connected alligator clips to the veggies, and suddenly, we were playing the piano with a cluster of beans. We’d lift a bean, and it would play a note.
MaKey MaKey connects everyday objects that can conduct a bit of electricity such as fruits, plants, coins, Play-Doh and even marshmallows, and converts these “newly-found inputs into keyboard presses or mouse control”. That means you can play SuperMario with Play-Doh, make a doll cry with foil, and use vegetables and fruits to compose a song. And yes, you can play Minecraft as well.
For my nephew, the excitement was really about the interaction it provided. It got him thinking laterally, wondering what he could hook up to the kit next and transform into a touch pad. He deliberated about objects that conduct electricity – it took a few experiments to figure that potatoes and coins worked, but Lego was a no go.
The wonderful thing about this is that children can connect with science and technology through play. Many children today are familiar with technology, but few understand the workings of their app or game. MaKey MaKey gives another dimension to play – by offering them an insight into the workings of the technology they are experimenting with. Since there are barely any instructions provided by the inventors, it comes down to the child’s imagination and ideas. Without realising it, they end up learning the basics of physics, music, sound, technology. Since it’s participative, a play date can become the start of a music band or a group game.
As the makers wrote on their Kickstarter page, “We believe that everyone can create the future and change the world. So we have dedicated our lives to making easy-to-use invention kits. We believe that the whole world is a construction kit, if we choose to see it that way”. While the MaKey MaKey is a great interface design for children, it’s a handy tool for adults especially designers, artists and engineers. Actually scratch that, most of us would have fun experimenting with this kit.
MaKey MaKey is available on Amazon.com. The writer has now got her own MaKey MaKey kit and has a fridge-full of toys to play with. The writer is the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru and writes about education for sustainable development, conservation and food security.