The disparity in interest towards such STEM toys has led to a disparity in STEM professions.

This graduation thesis aims to understand how to overcome such disparity through gender-accessible STEM toys.

Using the new medium of soft robotics to redefine what robotics means for both genders makes a case for play-based learning experiences for pre-schoolers.

Video Brief

The process followed is the basic design cycle of analysis, synthesis, simulation, evaluation and decision but with a twist.


What's the issue?

The gender disparity is quite evident regarding the toys children play with.

​A cursory look can immediately display the toy landscape and all its disparities.

Toys are heavily gendered, with barbie dolls intended for girls and GI Joes for boys.

What makes this worse is the demarcation of girls' toys, boys' toys in toy stores, subconsciously creating an impression on young individuals about the type of toys they should play with.

Context

For defining the project's scope, LEGO playspace De Bonte Bouwplaats was considered.

LEGO playspaces are a gateway for younger children to involve in the fascinating world of all things LEGO.  This place was used as a launching pad for exploring various toys to understand what fascinates preschoolers.

Explore

For defining the project's scope, LEGO playspace De Bonte Bouwplaats was considered.

LEGO playspaces are a gateway for younger children to involve in the fascinating world of all things LEGO.  This place was used as a launching pad for exploring various toys to understand what fascinates preschoolers.

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Various educative toys were analyzed for pre-schoolers. Educative toys were further classified into constructivist and roleplaying toys. While doing a DEPEST analysis, exploring demographic, economic, and socio-cultural trends, it was found that LEGO had a big cultural influence in the Netherlands.

​Besides, the form and the colours used, and the type of play widely varied across the genders when it comes to educative toys.

Benchmarking various toys based on open-ended and educative play to arrive at a sweet spot.

The key insight was this: This age group tended to do more storytelling and role-play-related activities.

Right from Garfield to Courage the Cowardly Dog. You can see this with respect to the games they play. After analysing various toys involved in such storytelling formats and dissecting the gendered toys, the next step was to ideate and arrive at various means to facilitate educative play.​

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Arriving at a concept direction

​While evaluating the concepts, the following concept drivers were taken into consideration.

Open-ended Play

Educative Play

Being gender accessible.

And providing a screen-free experience.

The following concepts were then evaluated based on the criteria. Does it encourage open-ended play? Is it educative? Is it gender-accessible? Do you provide a screen-free experience?

Apart from arriving at one single concept, there was a detailed exploration of what would comprise an ideal neutral, gender-accessible experience for preschoolers.

9 Moments of Product Experience was a methodology adopted to understand product experience on a micro, macro and metal level.

Building the soft robotic toys

The final concept selected was an extension of the Inflatibits model. A collection of hexagon-shaped blocks that can be assembled in various ways in various directions.

In this direction, emphasis was made on how to recreate animal-like body movements so that it is easier for children to replicate.

Along these directions, various hand gestures, and body movements were investigated.

The soft modular blocks were made using silicone as a material, which was quite difficult at first due to the presence of air bubbles in the embodiment, preventing inflation from happening uniformly. After various improvements to the silicon moulding process, uniform silicone forms were obtained without air bubbles. In addition to this, various pumping actuators were also prototyped.

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Another key requirement was also to integrate with the LEGO ecosystem. The shape of the ducts was designed in such a way that they fit easily with the connectors of the LEGO blocks.

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Various iterations were made to connect and pump easier to help children of ages 4-7 access this play kit using LEGO. In one of the observational studies, the inflation action was used to create organic movements in combination with the LEGO blocks.​

This provided additional functionality to the otherwise rigid-shaped LEGO blocks.

There were a series of embodiment challenges that arose during the fabrication process. As seen in the above images, the mould was redesigned to provide inlet and outlet valves to prevent the trapping of air bubbles.

A series of probes were used to see how the participants performed the actions to realise the desired interaction.

This was then evaluated based on how well they could do a certain task and how open-ended the play was. The probes used were moldable inflatable blocks, syringe-based pneumatic units, closed-air systems and rigid hexagonal blocks.

It was observed that the soft squishy nature was much more inviting and accessible compared to the hard rigid blocks, thus illustrating the usefulness of this medium. It was also interesting to see how children created their own systems using the modular blocks, thus showing how they understood closed-air systems quite intuitively.

This was the initial concept explored. The goal was to provide stomping as a playful interaction that could be recreated by means of different modular soft blocks.

These are some of the images from the final design test conducted with the functional prototype of Silly Stompers.​

As an ideal combination of role-playing and constructivist play makes for an interesting combination of play-based learning for this age group, this led to the formulation of the Silly Stompers.

Future Possibilities

Recommendations

Workshops could be conducted using this soft robotics set. To make it more engaging, there could be storybooks which go along with these and help them
create the desired roleplay.