Review

On test: Cubetto robot, bringing computer coding to preschools

People often say that the key to success is an early start – especially when it comes to learning a second language, or taking up a musical instrument. Is the same true for other, more technical skills?

Early last year, in a fantastic move toward the introduction of digital skills in the classroom, the BBC Micro:Bit, a small, personal computer designed to teach basic programming techniques, was made available to every Year 7 child across the UK. Now, a new start-up has taken things a step further, by introducing coding to children before they can even read and write.

Cubetto, developed by Primo Toys, is a friendly wooden robot that aims to teach the same concepts as the BBC Micro:Bit, but is specifically designed for pre-literate children aged three and above.

“Learning to program in early years is essential, but it should also be fun, playful and age-appropriate,” said Filippo Yacob, co-founder and CEO of Cubetto. “Our mission is to help children develop and realise their full creative potential. Cubetto is an open-ended toy that makes learning computer programming fun and easy to grasp. We’re proud to offer children of ages three and up an inclusive, interactive playset that teaches them the basic concepts of programming.”

The full Cubetto experience includes an adorable Cubetto robot, a wooden programming board, 16 colour-coded programming blocks, and a beautifully designed map and activity book. Children are able to program Cubetto to carry out different functions by sliding the colourful blocks – each of which is linked to a different instruction (e.g. forward, left, right) – into the programming board, before pressing a large blue ‘command’ button.

Using the activity book, which serves as an adventure tale for Cubetto, adults can help guide children to recognise which blocks carry out particular functions. The large, distinguishable and easy to hold blocks, and simple wooden board ensure that after initial instruction, even very young children will learn to instruct Cubetto to travel to areas of the playmat unaided.

The idea behind Cubetto is that by allowing children to learn basics of computer coding through play, it provides the initial building blocks for them to succeed in a digitised world.

The team behind the playset have also created maps to represent different worlds. The first set comes with ‘Cubetto’s first day of school’, but others available include the ‘Deep Sea, ‘Ancient Egypt’ and ‘Outer Space’. Using different locations in this way helps to keep the activities fresh, as parents and education providers can mix up the setting and give the opportunity for horizontal learning – e.g. learning about the Ancient Egyptians alongside programming – and storytelling and creativity.

Things don’t have to be restricted to the play mat. Cubetto is flexible. Attach a few pens with some masking tape and he can be made to draw on large piece of sugar paper as part of an arts class, or allow children to make their own maze for the robot to navigate. Children love to experiment, and playing with Cubetto is the perfect way to allow their imaginations to run wild. The best part is it doesn’t need to be complicated.

We received a sample Cubetto set from Primo Toys to find out how the little guy would perform under scrutiny, with impressive results.

Cubetto himself is sturdy and friendly faced, without being overly complex – exactly what I would expect from a robot aimed at children. The playmat and programming board follow in the same vein, with simple images, bright colours, and clean-cut lines. On the whole the playset is, albeit simple, highly visually appealing. To put this into context, the majority of E&T editorial staff are well over the three to seven year age range that Cubetto is aimed at, but the unboxing nonetheless invoked a few involuntary ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from around the office.

Cubetto’s design is possibly what makes the toy so exciting. The unassuming smiling face gives the small wooden cube a personality while remaining entirely neutral – making it accessible to any child regardless of gender or culture. Interestingly, from researching the history of Cubetto’s development, I found that the playset was originally designed as a car, but developers changed it in favour of the more ‘gender-neutral’ cube. Unfortunately, societal developments aside, cars are often still considered to be ‘boy’s toys’.

Needless to say, we had a few amusing hours playing around with Cubetto, which is very user-friendly and a lot of fun to interact with. Yet is it really rational to have a group of adults objectively review a coding toy for pre-schoolers? The concept is great, we are all for teaching children technical skills, but we wanted to know just how well the toy would fare with actual pre-schoolers.

With this is mind, we loaned Cubetto out for testing to my nephew’s preschool to see what the next generation of engineers would think of this new educational coding toy. The practitioners were all very happy to have the opportunity to get involved and wasted no time in introducing the children to Cubetto.

The children were told that they were going to be playing with a new toy robot – which as you can imagine got them all very excited. The practitioners laid out the maps, blocks and board and explained how Cubetto needed to get from A to B.

Using the storybook as an introduction, the children were shown how to make Cubetto move, with explanations that the green block would make the robot move forward, the red would make it turn right and yellow would make it turn left.

“The children were all very interested and spent a long time watching him to see where he would go and talked about the different environments, pointing out when he was in the mountains, or when he was in the sand etcetera,” one practitioner said.

As with any toy, it took a little time for some of the children to get to grips with how things worked, but with adult assistance it wasn’t long before children as young as two were getting involved. The practitioners said the children were unable to program the robot independently, but most could recognise that the green block would make the robot move forward, with some understanding that the yellow and red blocks would make Cubetto move left and right.

Children as young as three were able to understand that placing a coloured block onto the program board would give direction for Cubetto to move around and the large blue ‘command’ button, when pressed, would get the robot moving.

The toy was successful in helping the children to develop basic maths skills, for example, counting the number of spaces Cubetto needed to get to certain areas of the map. As well as this, children showed signs of problem-solving, using fine motor skills, and they learned which blocks were needed and helped fit them into spaces on the programming board.

The pupils seemed to form a friendly bond with Cubetto, with one four-year-old referring to it as “a clever robot” – albeit one that they wanted to guide into the river. During its time spent in the preschool, Cubetto became a very popular addition to the children’s daily activities. With some children even asking to play with the toy directly, saying that they wanted to play with “that robot that _____'s Auntie gave to us.”

On the whole, the practitioners found the Cubetto playset to be fun and engaging .They were also pleased with how quick and easy it was to set up – allowing for the popular robot to make an appearance whenever the occasion called for it.

Cubetto definitely passed the test with my nephew’s friends, and would make a great addition to any setting, whether it’s preschool, at a childminders, or a personal playroom, with children aged three to seven. It could be used regularly as part of preschool children’s play activities to encourage teamwork and problem-solving, and in time, as children got used to the set, practitioners could introduce coding keywords such as ‘command’ to the children’s vocabulary. 

The Cubetto playset is available to buy from Primo Toys for £159, or £189 including 4 extra adventure packs. Price of adventure packs sold seperately is £50. 

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