Beyond BB-8: How the Sphero is helping students with autism learn

It may be best known for the BB-8, but Sphero's robotic toys have uses well beyond Star Wars.

Aspect Hunter School in Sydney, Australia is a school for children on the autism spectrum. The school is attended by 130 kids, beginning at age four, as well as around 30 Spheros.

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Robotic balls that can moved remotely and programmed, the Sphero is offering the students new ways to learn social, emotional and academic skills.

Teaching at the school for around 10 years, Deputy Principal Craig Smith explained he uses three main methods to engage the kids in learning and play. The first is interaction with the natural world, such as gardening; the second is construction using toys such as Lego; and the third is through virtual tools, such as Minecraft.

"The idea is, how can we map up these three layers with each other so we're doing natural, constructive and virtual," he said. "That's where something like Sphero is beautifully placed."

Not only is it robust enough to be taken outside and played with alongside building blocks, it can also be used to teach coding away from a basic screen. "For kids with autism ... around 90% of the information processed is what they can see. They're very visual learners," he said.

Image: Craig Smith

It can also help kids feel more comfortable in the school environment. Smith explained how some young students, around six and seven years old, often find it stressful to leave their classroom and travel to other parts of the school.

"Early on, we found that if we let them guide Sphero: 'Let's take Sphero for a little adventure around the school,' they would actually, with no trouble, go into the assembly or sport hall if they had Sphero with them," he said. "It's almost like they were brave and overcame their anxieties for the sake of showing Sphero."

Craig Smith
Craig Smith

Image: Craig Smith

The Sphero also helps get students talking. Many class exercises involve building maps of the school in pairs and groups, and coding the Sphero to move around it.

"A big goal of our students is to express themselves: To use language, and listen to the language of others," he said. "It can be really hard to find things that are interesting enough for them to have those dialogues with each other. 

"With something like Sphero, we can't hold them back. They're eager to make them work and they just love the outlet of having a really visual, interactive way to engage."

The toughness of the device is also a key part of its appeal. "We chuck Sphero into a big bucket of paint and put it onto a big canvas in the playground, and kids spell their literacy words with Sphero," he said. "Most tech doesn't let you get so messy."

A number of the school's devices are Sphero's SPRK model, which means they work with the company's Lightening Lab app, a coding tool and community. Sphero's new model, SPRK+, launched Tuesday with Bluetooth SMART, among other features.

It's the openness of programming on platform that forms part of its appeal. "Anything that allows our kids more of a voice in being able to customise things is really important. We really love it when things are open ended," Smith said.

Next on his wish list? Maybe a Sphero you can take apart from top to bottom. "Our kids would probably like to crack Sphero open and have a tinker inside," he said. "We've got a lot of little hackers who would love to get involved and build their own versions of these things."

Craig Smith
Craig Smith

Image: Craig Smith

With the Sphero, and coding in general, Smith thinks it offers his students, and all students, a lot more than potential employment.

"We think that coding really teaches our kids the ways they can think, and think about their own thinking — it's not just about being entrepreneurial and getting into future jobs," he said. "It's about understanding the thought processes and the logical processes you use to think through things."

Even thinking through what to wear in the morning — Sphero can help.