Turing Tumble

Ms6yo Z builds her own computer using the Turing Tumble. Perhaps one day she will build a robot that will help us clean up our mess!

This Christmas, Ms6yo Z received a puzzle game called “Turing Tumble“. Like many of the most engaging games and puzzles and educational systems, the idea behind it is simple. In spite of this elegant simplicity, there are a vast array of ideas that she learns and skills that she practices when she uses her Turing Tumble, which, at this point in time amounts to usually a few times a week.

It is comprised of a simple, white slanted plastic board that reminds me a bit of the “Plinko” game on the old Price is Right TV game show (or maybe it’s on the current one too?). Plinko consisted of a large board at a slight angle. It was large enough that it required a staircase the contestant would climb in order to stand above the board. Once up there, the contestant would drop a puck from the top of the board, which had regularly placed pegs sticking out of the board. The puck would slide down, bouncing unpredictably from peg to peg. At the bottom, it would land in a slot labeled with one of various fabulous prizes. Rather than pegs, the Turing Tumble table has holes into which the “contestant” (student or puzzler) can place various tools. The small, colorful plastic “tools”, when used correctly, behave in a much more predictable way. And rather than a puck, the student uses small red and blue ball bearings, which make a satisfying plink, plink, plink sound as they hit the different plastic pieces. Sadly, there are no fabulous prizes at the end. Although, I’m sure that the learning that happens is more fabulous than anything offered on The Price is Right.

The game is named for Allen Turing, the mathematician whose decoding work during WWII (and the tragic discrimination that he faced) was made famous by the movie Enigma in which he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. And while MsZ is only 6 (and therefore too young for the movie), certainly some of the scenes (if we can find some) of the massive computers Turing and his team built to decode German messages might place her much smaller Turing Tumble into context for her. The Tumble website contests that with a table large enough and with enough of the given plastic pieces, one would be able to use to system to solve any mathematical problem.

Eric explained it to me this way. Coding is a language. Each of the pieces in the Turing Tumble are like parts of language: words or sentences or paragraphs. Maybe a punctuation mark. As MsZ combines them together, she’s writing a program, just as a writer might use words or sentences or paragraphs to build, say, a blog post or a short story or even a poem. Each of the pieces of language work in a distinct way and we can use them together in infinite combinations to solve a problem — or to communicate an idea. But we still have to stay within the rules of language. If we break the rules, the problem becomes unsolvable, the idea uncommunicated.

A Turing Tumble success!

The Turing Tumble also leads MsZ through the process of building a mechanical computer. For right now, she’s still in the early stages of the puzzles and so, as in early education math, the computers she is building create simple patterns. According to the Turing Tumble website later computers will solve actual computations.

The Turing Tumble allows to her both build a physical, mechanical computer, but also to practice the logic behind coding. It’s an introduction to the basics of if-then logic and also learning the rules and limitations of the language. Some of the pieces illustrate, in very concrete ways, how some of the gadgets or gears store information in the same way that information is stored in a computer.

The system comes with a booklet, which includes, of course, the rules and how different pieces work. It is contained within a sort of “graphic” (meaning illustrated) story, which I have not read, but MsZ has. She has not shown much interest in the story and would probably show the same enthusiasm for the game without the graphic story behind it. She’s only 6 and the suggested age on the box is 8 and up, so perhaps she’s just too young to appreciate the story. But more likely, I think that it has more to do with an idea inside the enclosed booklet. “Now you might think proving mathematical statements is a rather boring, straightforward task. Not at all. It requires tremendous creativity….” I think that MsZ is attracted to the creativity and problem solving of the table. For her, and I think for people who are mathematically minded in general (I would include children in that group), the process of learning the game and solving the problems is creative enough. They don’t require a story. The graphics and stories are what we adults think kids need in order to make “exciting” and “fun” what we fear they will think is “boring”. In my experience, most kids don’t need or even want the stories and colors and pictures. It’s the adults who think they need it.

That all being said, I think that the Turing Tumble would be great for adults too. We play a fair about of games and puzzles around here. Some of them are on screens, which are slick and convenient and have their place, but it’s really nice to have such a highly physically interactive puzzle that is still a challenge. She’s working on her fine motor skills in ways that touching a screen never does.

As for a six year old using this item for which the recommended minimum age is 8? It’s been fine. I don’t know if she would have been able to just pick it up and start doing it without one of us getting her started and pointing out a few things to her, so I’m guessing that the lower end recommended age of 8 is more appropriate if you are looking for something in which the child can be completely self directed. We did run into a few “glitches” initially in which some components on the back of the board were getting in the way of the pieces on the front and prevented them from working properly. And this is the sort of issue that probably requires someone older to solve. But solve them we did and it doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.

Every so often, she asks for help, but as homeschooling parents, that’s part of our job. Obviously. So we are happy to do it. But we try to avoid doing things for her or solving the puzzle for her. We might ask a few questions to help her get to the solution. Or, as happened recently, if I end up helping a bit more I had intended to (I couldn’t figure out the solution myself so I had to actually do it), I will ask her afterwards questions about what the problem was and how it was solved. This sort of “processing” of what went wrong (and what went right) is an important component of teaching the kids to practice metacognition. As Eric likes to remind us, we learn more from failing or losing than winning all the time. But this requires a close examination of what went wrong and how to do things differently next time. In other words: one of the things we are trying to do is to teach them how to learn. And the Turing Tumble is a great tool for doing so.

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