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Neurosmith MusicBlocksAnimal Blocks


In our quest to make exciting educational technologies for children, we partnered with Neurosmith, the maker of MusicBlocks.

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MusicBlocks is an award winning toy which enables very young children to use short musical phrases to create their own compositions. Children can do this by rotating physical blocks and changing their order. Each block plays a different segment of a song. Each face of the block has a different variation of that segment. For example, the circle face on the red block may have only a piano, while the circle face on the green block may feature a piano and a flute.

The creators of MusicBlocks wanted to expand it's capabilities. Therefore, they came to our team to brainstorm new ideas.Together we created the Animal Blocks, software that works with the MusicBlocks hardware.

MusicBlocks Cyber Cartridge
MusicBlocks Cyber Cartridge and


Each face of an animal block represents a different animal (e.g., slug, pig, horse) and each block represents a different characteristic of the animal, (e.g., what it eats, where it lives, the sound it makes). Children can press each block to hear what characteristics are associated with the specific face of the block, or they can press the blue button to play through all of the selected faces.When the blue button is pressed and all of the characteristics of one animal are selected, the Animal Blocks reveal the identity of that animal. For example, if a child has chosen all of the characteristics of a dog and then presses the button, the MusicBlocks console will say "I am a dog." If the characteristics of different animals are selected and the button is pressed, the MusicBlocks console reveals the mixed up animal that was created. For example, if the characteristics of a slug, dog and pig are selected, the Animal Blocks will say "I am a sluga-doga-piga-mus". This function enables children to create a new "mixed-up" animal and learn facts about different animals. Animal Blocks can spark children's imaginations to author a story, draw a "mixed-up" animal or learn more about different animals.


  • Create new software for existing commercial hardware

  • Make a challenging and fun activity for children younger that those on our lab design team

Design Process

We began by playing with MusicBlocks and writing notes about what we liked, didn't like, and what could be improved.After we analyzed the data from our notes, the team split into small groups and created low-tech prototypes of what MusicBlocks should be able to do in the future. The team used low-tech supplies such as paper, scissors, glue, markers, and clay to physically "sketch" ideas. 

Many possible directions emerged while creating these prototypes. Our first idea for new content was a "monster maker", in which each block contained a different characteristic, such as "I eat toenails" or "I look like a squashed pumpkin." In this version, when the blue play button was pressed, a monster's voice would encourage the child to draw the monster or create a story using the monster.Inventing interesting characteristics was fun but the end product was not as compelling as we had hoped. After another brainstorming session we decided that it would be more fun to play with something that we are familiar with...animals.Our team of children and adults voted on which animals to use and what content to put on the blocks. Then we recorded the voices of our child design partners.In the meantime, the engineering and computer science experts from our lab met with people from Neurosmith to understand the technology behind MusicBlocks.Then we made the first Animal Blocks cartridge.

MusicBlocks is designed for children who are younger than our child design partners. Therefore, to test Animal Blocks we observed several three and four-year-olds interacting with our software.We are continuing to observe children in a local preschool to understand the impact that Animal Blocks has on children.

Playing with MusicBlocks

Some of our child design partners observe a young child interacting with Animal Blocks


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