Ask a four-year-old how an electrical circuit works, and you’ll get a blank stare in return. Ask a four-year-old how to make the eyes on her monsters light up, and they’ll happily plug an LED into a block of conductive dough while explaining that electricity is making it happen. Children can grasp technical concepts, but they need the right tools. “You need to lead with what kids can do with technology, not the technology itself,” says Bethany Koby.
Koby is the co-founder of Tech Will Save Us, an educational toy company that sells products like create-your-own gaming consoles and bot-building kits for kids. Their latest release, Dough Universe, uses a material similar to Playdough to demystify the complex idea of electrical circuits. Kids can mold the conductive dough into creations that move, flash, and make sound.
Tech Will Save Us breaks down each scientific concept into a separate kit. Bright Creatures lets kids build creations that blink, flash buzz. “This is very much about circuit building and learning about polarity,” Koby says. Squishy Sounds is meant to let kids build musical instruments. “Here kids are learning about resistance—how when they create different sizes and shapes the material will create different kinds of sounds,” she says. The last, Electro Machines, lets kids put their creations into motion.
Electro-dough was modeled after a project out of St. Thomas University called Squishy Circuits, which, like Electro Dough, uses conductive and non-conductive dough to teach kids the basics of electrical circuits. AnnMarie Thomas, head of St. Thomas’ Playful Learning Lab, developed Squishy Circuits in 2009 after realizing most of her daughter’s’ toys were like black boxes that neither she or them could really understand. “My kids had toys that light up and made noise, but there wasn’t a really accessible way to explain to a three year old how to build it themselves,” she says.
Obviously, she couldn’t hand them a soldering iron. And even if she could, metal, chips, and wires aren’t the most forgiving materials for learning. “If you make a mistake, you can’t take it apart,” she says. “It’s done.” Dough, on the other hand, is supposed to be reworked, over and over again. The material invites experimentation and failure, which in turn makes children more willing to take chances. “What we don’t want is kids failing so soon that they lose the confidence or capacity to find what their creative potential is,” Koby says.
And that’s where toys like Electro Dough differentiate themselves from other forms of learning. It’s not really about teaching hard skills to get to a pre-determined outcome; rather, it’s allowing children to solve problems through self-motivated learning. Koby and Thomas know that the kids who play with conductive dough won’t walk away experts in circuitry, responsiveness, or mechanics—just like kids who use toys to code won’t necessarily become developers. “A kid doesn’t build with lego and become an architect, that’s not the point,” Koby says. The point, she says, is making children more curious about the world around them.
Ultimately, Thomas says, the best engineers aren’t those who know the most about science, but those who use that knowledge most creatively. “If we only know the math, only know the physics, then you don’t come up with new things,” she says. “You need to have the creative spark that let’s you use them as your paintbrushes.”