Read | A raw but rich dialogue - really listening to children about toys

Julian Welsh





The Open Source Science approach at We the Curious is about listening to people who wouldn’t normally be part of science research or the product design process.

At the end of 2022, we took David Smee - entrepreneur, inventor and toy designer - into schools around Bristol to ask children what they thought of his company’s toy idea. It’s a prototype of a baby rescue elephant whose behaviour evolves from children interactions, aided by audio voice prompts from a child elephant expert. He hopes it will help children connect with the natural world and develop empathy for wildlife.

Did anyone ever ask you what you wanted from toys?

Our conversations with Bristol primary school children began with a provocation in the form of Furbies: electro-mechanical ‘animal’ toys with some basic sensor-triggered noises and movements which sold in enormous numbers from the late 1990s onwards.

We had taken off the Furbies’ fur to expose the complex workings that bring the toy to life, and although the children loved getting their hands on these toys, they weren’t impressed. A common reaction was ‘creepy’! Tastes change, but we pondered on the product development process which produced the Furby. Were children involved at any stage?

Do children need to have a say in what their toys do?

Science centres like We The Curious have long aspired to create ‘interactive’ experiences way beyond ‘press a button and turn on a light’, but what the children showed us was that they were most engaged by ‘caring’ interactions developed by AniBotics in their rescued baby elephant. They seemed to want to share a play world with the elephant toy.

When the children followed the interactions linked to toy elephant prototype, their behaviour told us things their words didn’t: girls and boys all loved stroking the small patch of fur on the elephant’s head; they all wanted to take a turn at feeding her from a bottle; they belly-laughed and backed-off when she burped or farted! They were interested in details such as the tactile qualities of the elephant’s ‘skin’ – they wanted it to feel good to touch but knew that needed to be balanced with looking realistic.

Can elephants fly, David?

The children were notably less bounded by practicality than the grown-ups. Some of the more blue-sky suggestions for new features included flying, climbing the walls, turning into a fluffy ball, opening doors, eating tea, doing homework, driving, everything, and, literally, singing and dancing. David wanted to understand how children would respond in their own spaces, away a more unfamiliar setting associated with traditional focus groups. When David suggested the idea of passing the toy on to another child owner, the children showed emotional intelligence, reflecting that it was probably a good idea, whilst knowing it would make them sad.

‘They were in good voice!’, David said, once the school sessions were over. As an innovation expert, he was impressed by their ideas and creativity; their impressive insights; some even had comments on his business model.

What next?

Listening to the children’s ideas was not scientific, and we didn’t set out find out anything specific. This Open Source Science project was about letting a designer hear their voices, and for the children to feel heard. Armed with their raw but rich dialogue and David’s reflections on school sessions, the elephant toy is now moving into a further prototype development stage by a team of post-graduates at Bath University. We hope to be able to share this at We The Curious when we re-open.

If you’d like to know more about our other public-facing research projects, please visit our Open City Research programme page. If you’d like to see the latest updates about the little robotic elephant and other authentic animal rescue learning experiences being developed by AniBotics, please visit their website

Thanks to all the schools we visited, David Smee and the AniBotics team.



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