Kids love playing games and learning on tablet screens, but many parents are nostalgic for the days when all a child needed to have educational fun on a rainy day were some wooden blocks (or the cardboard box they came in.) One startup called Marbotic, based in France, has come up with a clever way to bring tactile learning to life by blending the digital features of a tablet with the tangible experience of wooden blocks.
Smart Letters, which recently surpassed their crowdfunding goal on Kickstarter and will begin shipping in December, consist of a wooden alphabet and a suite of free companion tablet apps. When a child stamps the tablet screen with a Smart Letter, the letter's sound is spoken aloud, helping the child to make the crucial connection between the look and feel of the letter and the sound it makes.
Smart Letters, which are intended for kids ages 3 and older, are made of wood, conductive plastic and metal, and require no batteries or connection — they actually work with just the static electricity of the human body. Currently, the letters are compatible with some iOS devices only, but Marbotic says they're working to make them Android-compatible as well. The letters and related apps are available in five languages.
Why are Smart Letters a big deal? Wooden letters are a type of learning tool known to educators as "instructional manipulatives" — physical objects that help children learn and remember concepts important to subjects like reading and math. A recent study concluded that instructional manipulatives can help students retain information even when the physical object is no longer in hand.
"After working for seven years in digital education, I got more and more passionate about methods that develop manipulative learning tools, such as the Montessori Method," says Marie Mérouze, the creator of Smart Letters and Smart Numbers, which Marbotic makes as well. "It suddenly clicked in my mind that we could blend the power of these manipulatives with the power of interactive screens."
Instructional manipulatives like block letters also help young kids practice their motor skills in a different way than swiping or touching a screen. "From ages 3 to 6, kids still need to develop their motricity and sensoriality, along with their intellect," says Mérouze. "The high interactivity of the toy captures their attention, and they just love to learn the letters." Smart Letters come with a suite of interactive app games inspired by studies that show that associating letters and phonics are the key to reading.
Parents and teachers might be wondering: if kids are "stamping" a tablet screen, couldn't they run the risk of breaking it? "We did a lot of tests and paid great attention to (developing) the special material on the bottom of the letters," says Mérouze. "It's soft enough not to hurt the tablet in any way — it won’t scratch it, and won’t break it," she says. In fact, the only hazard she found was a familiar one in tablet-owning households. "In all our tests, we found that the most dangerous thing for the tablet is when a kid is excited and wants to walk with the tablet to show someone something, and drops the tablet on the floor!"