Is it Possible for Toy “Robots” to Teach Children Computer Programming?

Can such skills be relayed to kids by this seemingly simple interaction?

Yana & Bo – courtesy of Play-i

There are several toy robots in production that are being geared specifically towards young children in the hopes of teaching them computer coding and programming. The innovative minds behind these models were looking for a way to project early learning and creativity to the youngest of minds through the simplest of ways – playing with toys. The result was Play-i, and was founded by engineers from Google, Apple, and Symantec.

Vikas Gupta, Play-i’s acting CEO, was first intrigued by this idea after reading an article about Estonia, and how their computer science education began in the first grade. Gupta, who is the former head of the consumer payments division at Google, set out to do some comparative research on this recent discovery. He was amazed to find that computer science education in America varies greatly with that of Estonia’s, in that it is much rarer. Having just recently had a daughter, Gupta knew that his new project would involve helping children learn. He says, “Thinking back on my own life, I began learning computer science at 14. I couldn’t imagine absorbing those programming concepts, at least the way I was taught them, at an early age.”

Because of the easy accessibility, it has become very common for children to start using technology and electronics at a remarkably young age. Technology surrounds us, and the fact remains that tablets, iPhones, iPads, laptops, and other devices have become such a regular aspect of everyone’s lives. Children born in this generation are more prone to learning through this kind of technology, because most of them are predisposed to it.

Gupta says that the focus here is the basics of coding. He states, “A lot of coding is about putting things in a sequence. Ask a four- or five-year-old kid to write out a sequence, and they have trouble organizing a long string of commands. But if you reframe that as a song with lyrics, or a story with a narrative, children that age can create and remember long, complex sequences.” The two robots, named Yana and Bo, are programmed to be able to interact with children through musical, as well as physical, interactions. The kids give directions through a smartphone or tablet, and can “drag and drop” a chain of commands. Gupta claims that by doing this, children are being introduced to other basic aspects of coding, such as the concept of loops.

Bo, the larger robot, has areas on his body and head for attachments, such as arms, which will allow him to move or play the xylophone. When he is moved, Bo remembers these actions and stores the commands, which the child can go back and play or put it into a sequence. The smaller one, Yana, does not move, but rather, interacts with the child by lighting up and producing sounds.

Play-i robots are still prototypes, so, therefore, it is still too soon to tell whether or not they will be successful in teaching children coding and programming. As with every brand new innovation, there are still issues that need to be worked out. For those interested in buying these prototypes, Yana can be purchased for $49, while Bo costs $149. For anyone who would like both, the pair can be bought for $189. It should be noted that Yana is cheaper because she cannot be remotely controlled. Once the campaign is complete, the final retail prices will probably be higher. Yana and Bo are expected to ship in the summer of 2014. To reserve your robots, visit www.play-i.com.

*Quotations and additional information courtesy of http://www.theverge.com/2013/10/28/5024608/play-robot-learning-computer-science-into-a-game and http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/play-i-bo-yana-robots

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