Makey Makey as an Assistive Resource
How to use a popular invention kit as an assistive technology tool
Makey Makey is an invention kit that can be used as an assistive technology that overcomes barriers and increases motivation because of its playful and user-friendly possibilities.
A number of years ago, I was teaching a class to enthusiastic certified teachers who were working on obtaining specialist qualifications in special education. One of my students had quadriplegia, and he insisted that I must look into a product called Makey Makey. I did look it up online, but did not feel motivated to investigate further – until I did. While teaching a series on iPads to group home support workers caring for, and teaching, adults with complex physical and developmental disabilities, his words came to mind. I looked more – and purchased it, and learned how to use it.
21st century teaching and learning highlights the constructivist value of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) inquiry: makerspaces, coding apps (like Scratch) and invention kits such as Makey Makey, which has garnered a steady stream of rave reviews in the STEM educational market as one the best tech toys.
What is Makey Makey? It is a deceivingly simple, hands-on tech tool created in 2012 by MIT graduates Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum. It’s an invention kit that “convert[s] physical touch to a digital signal, which is interpreted by a computer as a keyboard message.”1 Makey Makey Original, Classic, and Go all have the same design premise: teachers, parents and students can construct interfaces that turn conductive objects into computer keys and buttons. Alphabet soup becomes a drum kit, bananas transform into piano keys, and measuring cups turn into game controllers. “It’s a different way of connecting the physical world with the computer,”2 says learning expert Mitchel Resnick. Using Makey Makey as a standalone STEM or invention activity presents endless possibilities for student learning – and more! As it enters the mainstream, possibilities appear not just for curriculum and instruction, and but for accessibility.
How can Makey Makey change and improve the world of accessibility? Picture a student who has difficulty with pressing and clicking traditional keys. Or perhaps an adult with a hand tremor or visual disability finds it difficult to manipulate the tiny keys on a laptop keyboard.
Stephens, Chalaye, and Parkhouse (2014) used Makey Makey in a segregated school for students with complex needs.3 They saw improvement in areas such as cause-and-effect, trial-and-error problem-solving, interpersonal contact, and person-to-person contact. Lin and Chang’s (2014) study in a self-contained Kindergarten environment showed that Makey Makey could overcome barriers created by the students’ physical disabilities, such as waning interest in using traditional switches, and that the novel interface motivated children to increase their physical activity – both important attributes for this type of resource.4 Rogers, Paay, Brereton, et al. introduced Makey Makey to a group of retired individuals to empower and enable them in the world of technology.5 Their project focused on the power of interactive learning, playfulness, and exploration – experiences that learners of all ages can appreciate.
How it works
Makey Makey has few parts: a specialized circuit board, colourful cables, and small alligator clips. Users connect the circuit board and cables with clips. Then, the circuit board plugs into a computers’ USB port. Next, the other ends of the clips are fastened to items with a small electrical charge. You will be amazed at what you can use! Try chocolate, bananas, gelatin, tape, aluminum foil or:
- metal materials such as coins, cutlery, jewelry, tools, door handles, wheelchairs
- pencil lead (write or draw thick, dark lines on paper)
- plants, teachers, or friends!
These objects take on the role of “up” and “down” computer keys or other inputs, such as touchpads or mouse clicks, allowing navigation of the online world using almost anything in the “in real life” world that has even mild conductivity.
While accessibility applications are an “off-label” use of the invention kit, the Makey Makey website includes an assistive resource guide that offers many possibilities.
For example, a wheelchair can be used as the interface by its movement over two inputs. First, connect tin foil to a coat hanger hung on the back of a wheelchair and connect it as the ground on the Makey Makey device. Next, place two large tin foil squares on the floor and indicate what the function of each square is (e.g. up/down arrow keys, W A S D keys, or other inputs). Then, connect each square with the alligator clips to the inputs on the Makey Makey device. Now as the wheelchair is moved over each of the squares, the keys are controlled. Another example is found in Silver and Rosenbaum’s demonstration video. Makey Makey Classic is clipped to large chunks of play clay. Essentially, this clay makes large, pliable buttons for children or adults with fine motor difficulties or other motor challenges. From directional head movements, head tilts, shoulder shrugs, forearm or hand movements, or torso leans, using Makey Makey as an assistive device can open up a new way of interacting with technology so that new, exciting, experiences can be enjoyed. Another possibility: If a child is not motivated by or is unable to access traditional augmentative communication devices, MakeyMakey could be set up to widen communicative opportunities, by linking spoken words or short phrases to specific items.6
Always keep the voice and interests of the Makey Makey user in mind! Some further considerations include:
- Use larger objects for individuals with fine motor difficulties.
- Use objects that will specifically capture the interests of the individual you are working with.
- When supporting reluctant learners, encourage those learners by including their favourite things.
Makey Makey is a lower-cost alternative to other custom assistive technologies presently on the market. It has built-in novelty for the user since the input material can be changed easily and it is compatible with many web games and apps. This invention kit is hands-on, intuitive, creative, and encourages innovation. To learn more, check out the Makey Makey website, the vast number of demonstration videos on YouTube, or follow on Twitter at @makeymakey.
Photo: Makey Makey
First published in Education Canada, September 2018
1 Chien-Yu Lin and Yu-Ming Chang, “Increase in Physical Activity in Kindergarten Children with Cerebral Palsy using MaKey-MaKey-Based Task Systems,” Research in Developmental Disabilities 35 (2014): 1963.
2 Tom Cheshire, “MaKey MaKey: Who wants to use bananas as a computer keyboard?” Wired (blog), November 12, 2012. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/the-magic-fruit
3 Liz Stephens, Clare Chalaye, and Charlotte Parkhouse, “Exploring the Use of a ‘MaKey MaKey’ Invention Kit with Pupils in a Special School,” SLD Experience 20, no. 1 (2014): 10-14.
4 Lin and Chang, “Increase in Physical Activity in Kindergarten Children.”
5 Y. Rogers, J. Paay, M. Brereton, et al., “Never Too Old: Engaging retired people inventing the future with MaKey MaKey,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2014): 3913-3922.
6 Stephens, Chalaye, and Parkhouse, “Exploring the Use of a ‘MaKey MaKey’ Invention Kit,” 13.