Wacky races

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Dump truck versus fun buggy Jon O'Connor shifts into top gear for a Formula One approach to control technology. Good teaching thrives on bright ideas and some well-chosen resources. The bright idea for Radio Rollers as an introduction to control technology belongs to Phil Hantman and his wife, Vera.

Phil and Vera have practical experience of primary education and know only too well how daunted many teachers are by aspects of information technology. For example, the national curriculum requires that children should gain experience of using control devices. While such technology is now part of everyday life, designing learning activities which involve giving commands, modifying and storing instruction sequences can still stretch many of us.

So, thought Phil and Vera, who also happen to have a small company called Educational Technology (or Ed Tech), let's start by giving children some experience of playing with good quality toys which use control technology.

Good toys in the right hands make for good learning through play. Add a dash of guidance for teachers, include some easy-to-use workcards which provide a model of problem-solving challenges to capitalise on the excitement, throw in a couple of bright vinyl giant floormats that roll out in seconds and store the whole caboodle in a jolly roll-along crate.

The toys in question are from the famously reliable Tomy range. After extensive research, Ed Tech chose two of their radio-controlled vehicles, namely the chunky Dump Truck and the raunchier Big Fun Buggy.

The dump truck is a futuristic tipper-lorry mean enough to hit the streets. It can carry a hefty load of cubes and tip them out at the touch of a spring-loaded button. The buggy is decidedly cool, with enough Formula One design flair to send a DeLorean scampering back to the future. You can see some gorgeous gearing through the perspex engine cover in the buggy, complete with the gaudiest yellow springs.

Both vehicles are brilliantly coloured and stylised, with crumple-zone bumpers and soft tyres. The batteries keep them motoring for around six hours non-stop. Separate motors control forward and reverse drive.

These mean machines are operated by remote-control gadgets on independent frequencies. The direction is controlled by a miniature steering wheel on the unit.

The workcard activities involve planning and playing clearly structured games, manoeuvring one or both vehicles around routes on one of the two floor mats. The mats are realistically designed for use with teams of two to six children. One mat aims to promote language skills, using mapping, planning and concepts of shape, colour and space, while the other emphasises use of numbers.

Children using the Radio Rollers were happy to take on more structured activities. They welcomed the opportunity to investigate various challenges. Sean, aged 9, particularly enjoyed creating complex patterns and routes for his best mate, Gregory, and was especially keen on the game which involved driving blindfold under instructions.

The journeys around the floormats evoked some excellent discussion about the roles within the group, the need for teamwork and the fairest method of swapping drivers. The tasks offered applications and reinforcement for concepts such as sequences and opportunities for tackling open-ended number problems.

They also revealed some startling gaps in spatial awareness and visual discrimination within the group. Not many resources develop a sense of right and wrong as well as a sense of left and right.

At the NEC Education Show in March the cheerful crowd around the Radio Rollers stand stood out. These butch vehicles had the punters smiling in the aisles, curiously queuing to view, and itching to have a go at the controls.

It's a real pity that so much play has gone out of our classrooms, because so much live learning went out of the door at the same time. To watch children totally absorbed in working with these vehicles shows that good toys and resources can still compete with video games.

Radio Rollers Pounds 129.95 from NES Arnold, tel: 0115 045 2200.

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