Using “Thinking Tags” with Kindergarten Children:
A Dental Health Simulation
Gail Andrews, Kimberley A. MacKinnon, Susan Yoon
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com & firstname.lastname@example.org
According to many dental professionals, the decay effects from the accumulation of sugar on teeth are a very
difficult concept for young children to learn. Playing the dental hygiene game with Thinking Tags brings context
into the classroom. Instead of watching a demonstration of the accumulation of sugars on a screen or being told
about dental health, this simulation allows 5-year old children to experience improving or decaying dental health
without any real adverse effects. Small, wearable microprocessor-driven GroupWear tags were brought into the
kindergarten classroom to simulate the decay process, providing information and creating a discussion about teeth.
This program was effective and enthusiastically received by this age group.
Science, technology, thinking tags, dental health, participatory simulation, discourse
The principles of situated learning are that a) knowledge needs to be presented in an authentic context, and that b)
learning entails social interaction and collaboration (Lave, 1999). An example of applied situated learning
psychology is a Thinking Tags game designed to show children the concept of accumulation. Building on this
basic concept, children are able to learn that sugar on the teeth can accumulate and over time cause tooth decay.
Many dental professionals believe that this concept is thought to be too difficult for children to comprehend. In
fact, the Canadian Dental Association recommends that children ten and under should not be responsible for their
own dental care (CDHA, 2000). Apart from an underdeveloped level of responsibility, it may be presumed that
children at this age "just don't get it".
Resnick, Berg & Eisenberg, (2000) show that a constructionist “scientific instrument design has the potential to
spark interest in scientific issues among students who otherwise avoid the subject altogether”. We aim to show that
by concentrating on the most basic ideas relating to accumulation and applying the pedagogy of situated learning,
we can successfully teach this difficult concept to children as young as five.
THINKING TAGS AND DENTAL HEALTH
The MIT Media Laboratory has been at work developing small wearable microcomputers called Thinking Tags
(Tags). These Tags are about the size of a name badge and are equipped with infrared ports and sensors, lights and a
small display panel however, they can also come with LED’s and various other sensory equipment. Colella (2000)
describes how this technology has been used in science classrooms to simulate various biological phenomena such
as carrying capacity in pond ecosystems, and the spread of infectious viruses in communities. Other technologies
developed by this group, such as Meme Tags, are able to illustrate the extent to which salient ideas are selected and
distributed throughout a population (Borovoy, Martin, Vemuri, Resnick, Silverman & Hancock, 1998). By using
these Tags in domain-specific activities, we believe that the dynamic feedback experienced by individuals could
initially drive group behaviours and may alter or influence the manner in which interactions occur.
One of the most salient features of the Tags is their ability to create a system of feedback, from which the students
may gain increased understanding. Each Tag has the ability to send and receive information via an infrared signal,
and can also display information, using lights, sounds and a mini digital display screen. Each of these features is
then able to function in a constant loop of sending, receiving and displaying information, allowing students to
obtain information from their Tag, almost instantaneously.
THE DENTAL HEALTH SIMULATION
Kindergarten aged children wear computerized Thinking Tags, that, through kinetic make-believe, show them the
health status of their “teeth”. In the Dental Health Simulation, children are asked to wear the Tags for a short period
of time while they pretend to “feed” on various food items placed around the room. The food items have other Tags
buried inside them, which emit information via infrared signals as to the amount of sugar contained in a serving of
that specific product. Sugar amounts vary from food to food, with sugared cereal being the highest and water
having no sugar value at all. Furthermore, a time-delay feature was added to simulate the temporal relationship
between accumulation and decay. After a specific time, calculated according to the amount of sugar accumulated
(more sugar means less time), healthy teeth (indicated by five green lights on the Tag turn red, indicating a state of
dental decay. Children then have thirty seconds to get to the brushing station before one of their teeth, or LED
lights, turns red permanently, indicating the presence of a cavity.
The temporal element seems to contain an important learning advance in children this age and further research may
explore the relationship between game time elapsed and amount of sugar.
Our Thinking Tag game has been designed to introduce children to the concept of accumulation. Bringing context
into the classroom with the Dental Health Simulation and Thinking Tags, children seem to better understand the
effects of sugar and regular brushing on their teeth, through their experience with the kinetic make-believe activity.
Colella explored the presence of a first-person perspective in her study with Thinking Tags and the virus game
(2000). This first-person perspective demonstrates the extent to which children are drawn into the game, in our case
enhancing the context of learning. First-person reference was further noted during the simulations, when more than
one child cried, “I have a cavity!”
Early work with this simulation suggests that 5-year olds are able to understand the concept of accumulation of
sugar. Feedback the tags provide appear to be data that the young children can make meaningful. When the children
were asked, if they learned anything while they were doing this activity, they commented that they learned “not to
eat too much” of the sugary foods.
Several questions continue to be addressed in this work, including: Are children building on one concept after the
other? What effect do the presence of classmates and the discourse have on learning? We already know that other
children send their classmates to the brushing station when lights go red, fearful that, “You’re going to get a
cavity!” Children were also observed explaining the game to one another, through comments such as, “You brush
before they go red.”
Special thanks to the Thinking Tag Committee at OISE/UT for their support.
Borovoy, R., Martin, F., Vemuri, S., Resnick, M., Silverman, B., & Hancock, C. (1998). Meme tags and the
community mirrors: Moving from conferences to collaboration. Proceedings of the 1998 ACM Conference
on Computer Supported Cooperative Work.
Canadian Dental Association Health Advisory (2000). Your Dental Health, Children's Teeth. Ottawa, Ontario.
Courtesy CRHA (Calgary Regional Health Authority). [Web Resource] Available:
Colella, V. (2000). Participatory Simulations: Building Collaborative understanding through immersive dynamic
modeling. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(4), 471-500.
Lave, J. (2000) The Principles of Situated Learning. http://tip.psychology.org/lave.html
Resnick, M., Berg, B & Eisenberg, M. (2000). Beyond Black Boxes: Bringing Transparency and Aesthetics Back
to Scientific Investigation. Published in Journal of the Learning Sciences. [Web Resource] Available: