Educational tech toys: for life, or just for Christmas?

Image credit: Osmo

Tech toys are vying to be some of the most popular gifts under the tree this Christmas. Is the move towards teaching coding through play just a fad, or is it here to stay?

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of high-tech kits and toys aimed at teaching children computing, and more specifically, coding. First there was a growth in home kits aimed at kids and adults alike, such as Kano, the BBC micro:bit, Raspberry Pi and Arduino, but more recently this space has expanded to include a much wider range of products and toys designed specifically for children.

There’s a growing importance in teaching children key computing concepts. This is highlighted by the UK becoming one of the first countries to introduce a nationwide UK computing curriculum just a few years ago that sees primary children required to learn coding alongside English and maths. This is because it is imperative that the next generation grows up as technology creators as well as consumers, as Bethany Koby, founder of toy manufacturer Technology Will Save Us, highlights.

“In the modern world technology is pretty much everywhere; what isn’t quite there yet is the ability for everyone to make and get hands-on with tech. The ability to create with it will not just shape our future, it is our future. Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65 per cent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.

“The most exciting new development in the industry is the creative tech toy space, which finally offers kids the opportunity to make, code and invent with toys. Our aim is to spearhead this sector… empowering kids with technology and unlocking their creative potential. We think kids will invent future jobs based on playing with Minecraft, making thirsty plant detectors in their kitchens and designing their own games controlled by their micro:bits.”

Alongside well-established products like the BBC micro:bit, which Technology Will Save Us helped develop, Osmo’s selection of products and the Kano Computer Kit – now being used by children in over 80 countries – are a growing number of innovative toys.

Take, for example, SmartGurlz, designed to encourage girls to code.

“I started SmartGurlz because I couldn’t find any robots or drones that involved themes that would appeal to my daughter,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, founder and chief executive.

“Girls like to role play; have stories and purpose. The idea with SmartGurlz is to add robotics to the world they already have; dolls, dollhouses, furniture. Our dolls have ride-on robotic scooters that are app-controlled and can be coded using Scratch, which allows young people to creatively build and collaborate and understand the basics of robotics, spatial reasoning and programming logic.”

Many coding toys are aimed at older children, but there are several now available that are designed for a younger audience. Plobot, for example, is aimed at children four and over, teaching them about physical coding, algorithms, conditions and loops. Designed by former Google engineer Sean Purser-Haskell and NYU robotics professor Rudi Cossovich, children are able to create their own golem and give it ‘a soul’ using command cards. Then for pre-schoolers there’s the Think & Learn Code-a-pillar from Fisher Price.

“We designed Code-a-pillar to expose preschoolers to coding fundamentals, like critical thinking, problem solving and sequencing. When children are physically rearranging the segments to get Code-a-pillar to travel from point A to point B, they’re thinking and making the connections that spark a-ha moments,” says Tony Favorito, director of design at Fisher-Price.

These aren’t just toys with a ‘tech’ element; in-depth research has gone into their creation, with the aim of teaching children about computing concepts in the most engaging way possible.

“Osmo Coding is built upon three decades of research from MIT and Northwestern that shows kids learn abstract concepts better when using their hands,” explains Osmo's CEO and cofounder, Pramod Sharma.

“Using such ‘tangible programming’ we’ve created Lego-like pieces of code that kids manipulate in much the same logical way they’d write code. It’s about computational thinking and understanding how a computer needs directions to do anything. Since launching, it’s become our most popular product and found its way into many classrooms.”

Indeed, as well as fun for kids at home, many of these products are appearing in schools. For example, Kano’s Computer Kits are currently being actively used in over 700 schools and education programs worldwide.

“Amana Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, USA, uses Kano to build Minecraft worlds in history class, teach maths and politics,” highlights Alex Klein, CEO and co-founder of Kano. “We’ve had kids around the world turn Kano into radio stations, STEM weather units and photo-lapse cameras.”

Many toy manufacturers are also developing products to support education curriculums, including Kano, SamLabs, Erase all Kittens and BeeBot.

“We provide materials that educators can use to integrate our kits into their own curriculum,” says Klein. “We also work with educators to help them create custom content and we have an in-house education team that looks after this very important part of the Kano ecosystem.”

Sophie Deen, founder of edtech company Bright Little Labs, created story app 'Detective Dot' to teach children about computer science.

“We designed Detective Dot and the Children’s Intelligence Agency to complement the KS1 and KS2 primary computing curriculum,” she says. “In the story, Detective Dot faces challenges that she needs to overcome using programming. For example, we code a spy-selfie stick to release a deadly fart when it gets into enemy hands - an authentication code. Or, when the gang break into an enemy factory in China, they recode the CCTV so that it plays a loop and doesn't show the gang snooping around.”

“The story actually takes you through what an algorithm is, what a loop is, and why debugging is important. Kids can also join the Children’s Intelligence Agency themselves, and get involved by practicing their programming skills,” Deen continues.

“In research, we found that parents can feel alienated by a lot of the coding games and toys on the market that are hardware or software based. They are too expensive, or appear to need a parent who is already a tech expert to understand and use the game. That’s one of the reasons we started with a paperback and digital book.”

Although there’s a lot of hype about products that introduce coding through play right now, the general consensus is that these types of toy won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

“Coding toys are on-trend right now, and I don’t think that will phase at all,” Deen states. “Coding is set to become a permanent and important feature of children’s daily lives. We live in a smart, connected, digital world and tech is a part of everyday life. I think that in the future, kids will passively interact with technology, as well as learn how it works.

Digital literacy will be given a status similar to other literacies, like reading. We don’t necessarily need our kids to grow up to be Shakespeare, but we do what them to read. It will be the same with digital literacy.

“Another factor is employment - as programming skills become increasingly fundamental for job opportunities, coding will be embedded in play and toys earlier on.”

“If we can use coding kits to inspire young people and capture their interest in engineering and technology from an early age we will be better equipped to fill the job roles businesses so desperately need. Jobs in engineering and technology will become some of the most important roles in our economy in the near future and if these can help to bridge today’s skills gap, then they can only be a positive thing,” concludes Mandi Walls, technical community manager, EMEA at Chef Software (and purchaser of two coding kits for her nieces this Christmas).

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