Toys for Your Family to Play with Code

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Coding isn’t just about building websites or flashy apps. And learning to code isn’t restricted to giving directions to a turtle, Disney character or some other avatar in your browser. After all, why watch a robot move on the screen when you can see it move in real life?

Some say that coding is its own language. So why not make it a mother tongue for a new generation of children birthed in a digital era? Some of these toys introduce programming concepts before kids learn how to read or type on a keyboard.

From Minecraft to monkeys, here are a few of the latest toys that literally bring the joys of programming to life.

The Sunnyvale, CA startup (formerly known as Play-i) founded by former Apple, Google and Frog Design employees made a splash in 2014 when they raised over $1.4 million in a Kickstarter campaign for programmable robots, Dash (the “explorer”) and its sidekick, Dot (the “storyteller”). Even investors on Sand Hill Road were agog and followed up with $8 million in venture funding.

Using apps like Blockly that run on iOS and Android, children as young as 5 can program the robotic duo to move around, clean up their rooms (move over, Roomba!) and even play their favorite tunes on a xylophone. Dash & Dot are equipped with audio and distance sensors so they can respond to commands and, perhaps even more importantly, avoid bumping into each other.

The company has also introduced the robots to more than 150 K-8 schools in the US through the “Teach Wonder” program, where educators learn how to incorporate Dash and Dot into STEM subjects and share guides and lesson plans.

The duo cost $229.99; accessories like the xylophone, LEGO brick connectors and bunny ears cost extra. The company also offers a 20% discount to schools that purchase packs of 5, 10 or 20 Dash & Dot robots.

Boulder, CO-based Sphero (formerly called Orbotix) also offer its own pair of programmable robot toys in the form of Ollie and Sphero. The TechStars accelerator graduate never intended to create anything educational, but has embraced the demand from teachers and parents who saw the toys as a learning tool with potential.

Both Ollie and Sphero can be controlled with an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. More than 30 apps are available for Sphero to turn the toy into everything from a game controller to a playtoy for your pets. (Yep, the company says it’s safe.) Instructional apps include Macrolab (a visual command editor) and orbBasic (based on the BASIC programming language), both of which allow kids to send Sphero simple move commands and navigate it through mazes.

Ollie, the more rugged of the duo, can be decked out with removable tires and hubcaps to take on tough terrain. Named after the classic skateboarding trick, the robot can be programmed to perform a variety of spin, drift, jump and flips, and run at speeds up to 14 miles per hour.

In 2014 the company rolled out the SPRK program, which includes a series of core programming lessons and STEM challenges that teachers can use in the classroom. Sphero has since introduced the toys in more than 250 schools, and has said it will be donating some of its kits to needy schools through its partnership in Apple’s ConnectED program.

Sphero is available for $129.99; a pack of 12 is available to educators for $1,199.99. Ollie comes at $99.99 or $149.99.

Piper, a graduate of Zynga’s co.lab accelerator for startups that make learning fun, combines Minecraft, Raspberry Pis and circuit boards—all in a box. The kit comes with a Raspberry Pi board, a 7-inch LCD display, a power bank, and a hodgepodge of breadboards, wires and buttons.

Designed for kids of all ages, Piper challenges players to solve virtual puzzles in Minecraft by using the physical circuit controller to build bridges and switches.

The startup has already surpassed its $50,000 Kickstarter goal, and will begin shipping the kits in December 2015. The first batch is selling like hotcakes—so make up your mind fast.

Can you learn to code without knowing how to read? This UK-based company thinks so. Primo literally takes the concept of “block coding” to create an Arduino-powered toy set that includes a plywood board, a wooden robot named Cubetto, and color-coded blocks that each instruct one move that Cubetto can make. Children as young as three can arrange the wooden blocks onto the plywood board (which acts as the compiler), and press a button to make Cubetto move.

The playset (which includes the instructional blocks, the robot and the board) costs £170. (Kits are expected to be delivered in fall 2015.) Take a peek at the lesson plan (PDF) provided by the company to see how Primo can be used at home and in the classroom. Advanced tinkerers should also check out this thorough guide on how to hack your own Primo playset.

Many board games designed for young children rely purely on elements of luck. But Dan Shapiro, a father of twins and a former Googler, is hoping to change that with Robot Turtles, a no-tech, family-friendly board game where children can learn basic programming logic.

The gameplay is straightforward: Kids create a maze on the playing board and draw instruction cards that allow their turtle to make a move (such as turn left, turn right or move straight). They then take turns strategically playing the cards to capture the jewel. As kids become more familiar with the game, they’re encouraged to play more cards at a time to give their turtles a sequence of instructions. Parents can help their children resolve errors and “debug” their code.

Designed for 3- to 8-year olds, Robot Turtles raised over 25 times the $25,000 it originally asked for in its Kickstarter campaign, allowing the team to send 25,000 copies of Robot Turtles to kids in 65 different countries. (Here’s an interview with Shapiro about creating the most-backed game in Kickstarter history.) It’s available for $25.

Monkey around with Code Monkey, where players guide their monkeys to paradise in a banana grove. Like Robot Turtles, this board game invites parents and children as young as eight to play a series of cards to move their trio of monkeys around. According to the company, the instructions on the cards introduce kids to concepts including Boolean operators, conditional statements, assignments and control structures. (A card might read: “If a monkey is on a tree AND a rock, move 6 spaces.”)

Code Monkey Island can be ordered through the website for $40. The game comes with an “Explorer’s Guide” that helps kids make the connection between the game and programming concepts.

Most of the toys on this list cater to the younger audience with designs that can be described as “cute.” Not so for the LEGO Mindstorms, which is designed for older and advanced coders to build and program fierce-looking robots that look like they’re straight from the Terminator series.

The EV3 brick comes with motors, sensors, remote controls—all powered by the EV3 brick that connects to a computer. After assembling the robot, users can use the drag-and-drop interface in the LabView Software (downloadable for free) and program it to do things like launch bazookas and grab items with the gripping claw. There’s also a “commander app” that allow users to control the contraption via a mobile device.

The software also comes with 25 “missions” that offer sample programs for those new to coding. Afterwards, users are encouraged to remix and hack the robots to perform more advanced functions. There’s a vibrant online community where users share original creations and programs; here’s one that looks like Pixar’s WALL-E. Kids as young as 12 have created Braille printing kits from Mindstorms.

The set retails at $349. LEGO’s education division offers classroom sets and professional development resources for teachings looking to integrate the robots in a 45-minute classroom period. Check out Ars Technica for an in-depth review.

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