If you've ever had to teach kids about patterns and organizing data into small, organized groups, then you know that it isn't always easy. Small children get confused by the chaos caused by the distraction of "differences" between objects, so the secret is to teach children how to look closely at a population of objects or living things, and learn to differentiate and group together identifying characteristics.
There are obviously entire fields of study centered around statistical population analysis, but at a basic level, these skills help children adopt a more analytical view of the world around them. It helps young children learn how to make careful observations, analyze common patterns, and use those patterns to organize complex data. This is a core principle of math, science and many other disciplines.
One of the best examples of an online resource that offers one of the simplest approaches to teaching children about something this complex is a web application called Furbles
Furbles Main Page
Furbles was an application created by Alec McEachran. The 2003 version is the one that you can access and use for free online. The 2008 version is a full version that you have to pay for. The free version that Alec created is actually a very useful application that any teacher or parent could use to teach children about organizing sets of information.
Since the information or "data" comes from the observation of cute little creatures called Furbles, it captures and maintains the interest of younger children. The ability to maintain interest is the key to what makes this such a successful way to teach these concepts to young children.
Manually Creating the Population
The way Furbles normally works is that it creates a certain population of these little creatures using certain parameters that you define. This may be 50 Furbles with eyes ranging from 1 to 4, shapes ranging from 3 to 6, and colors ranging from 1 to 4 (different colors). Another "mode" of using the tool is by clicking on the little "wrench" icon.
This lets you manually create each subset within the population. You can create a certain number of Furbles of a particular color, shape and number of eyes. As a teacher, this provides you with the knowledge of every grouping and pattern before the population is "mixed" up and shown to the kids.
The Population Page
The next page (press on the right red arrow) is the population page where you'll see the entire combination of all of your Furbles. As you can see the population is all jumbled, and kids will have to look very carefully to try and group together Furbles with common characteristics. You'll find the simple controls at the lower left corner of the tool. From left to right, the controls are the lottery, bar graph, pie chart and randomize.
When you select the Pie Chart tool and then choose the characteristics that you want to group, the tool will perform the grouping and then show you the data organized into a graphical pie chart with each of the Furbles placed into their respective group.
This is an excellent way to help young children understand exactly what pie charts mean, and how similar groups of data can be organized into such a visual format. Of course the child can do the same thing in bar graph format by first selecting the bar graph tool, choosing the characteristics to compare, and then pressing the arrow.
The Bar Graph shows the child how you can compare data points in a side-by-side comparison with bars that are the length of the data they represent. In this case there were three groups (three colors) and the number of furbles of each color is represented by one bar.
This is also an important lesson to learn because there will be many times in future grades where students will need to use these skills in their math or science class. Furbles clearly seeks to serve as a tool that can introduce that understanding at a much earlier age.
Automatic Population Generation
Instead of manually creating the population one group at a time, you can go back to the main page and let the tool do all of the work. By selecting the number of total Furbles you want on the screen, the total number of colors, the range of eyes and the range of shapes (sides) that you want to exist in the population, the tool will randomly create groups of different numbers that have each of these distinct characteristics.
A 50 Furble Population
As you can see here, the wider range you set the parameters will produce a wider variation of characteristics throughout the population of furbles. The groups become much smaller, and in some cases individual furbles are completely unique and stand alone. This is an excellent way to show kids how statistics works, and how the greater the number of combinations, the wider in scope and more varied the results.
Pie Chart for Larger Furble Population
As you can see here, the higher the furble population, the smaller the distinct groups become. In this case there are only two furbles with six eyes, orange and with 7 sides, four with four eyes, red and with 7 sides, and only one that has three eyes, black and has 8 sides. The possible combinations are very large in range, so the outcome produces very small groups that all share common characteristics.
There is a lot of educational value to a tool like this, but it's also entertaining. Kids will not only appreciate how this sort of information is organized, but as you move your mouse around the screen, all of the furbles look at wherever your mouse is pointed - it's enough to make even an adult laugh.
Playing with Furbles
The whole point of this tool is for kids to just have fun with it. Let your child or student just play around with the possible scenarios and see how different the furbles all look when they're done. They can even play with the furbles by moving the mouse around the screen (the furbles watch your every move), and children can also click on the "Lottery" button (the star). This randomly selects one furble. The chosen furble gets so excited and happy that they spin!
Furbles isn't a full-featured educational program by any stretch of the imagination. However, as an online tool, it does what it was made to do, and it does it well. It will show children how sample sizes and population characteristics matter. It will also teach them that whenever they examine any question or situation, the larger the number of variables that they start out with, the number of answers or possible results (patterns) at the end will be exponentially larger as well.
In the end, Furbles is a cute activity that would make for a very useful teaching tool in any classroom or home.