Five months ago, Dan Shapiro, the CEO of Google Comparison (Google’s comparison shopping subsidiary), was in the shower, idly thinking about a couple of things. The first was the nature of programming, and whether it could be separated from language; the second was what he could do that day to make the lives of his twin four-year-olds more special. But like the shampoo and water in his hair, the two different trains of thought suddenly blended together, and formed the invigorating lather of a new idea altogether.
“I’d had this idea that had been rattling around in my head for a few months,” Shapiro tells me. “It had nothing to do with kids, though. It was just this idea about what it would be like to sever the dependence that computer programming languages have with plain text. What if you could program something with colors, or curlicues, shapes? Something that wasn’t the way of visualizing the code, but was the code?”
Something like, say, a game. A game he could play with his kids. A game that taught them to code. And just like that, Robot Turtles was born. A board game designed to teach kids who can’t even read how to code and partially inspired by the kid-friendly Logo programming language, Robot Turtles was up on Kickstarter for just five hours before it blew past its modest $25,000 funding goal. As of writing, just 24 hours after the Kickstarter went live, Robot Turtles has been funded for over $80,000, and with almost a month left to go, there’s still no end in sight to how much money it will make.
How do you teach kids to code without a computer? In Robot Turtles, a parent or other grown-up takes the role of a computer. The goal of the game is simple: all a child has to do is guide their turtle to a jewel located somewhere on the board. Kids can do this by laying down brightly colored cards with easy-to-understand symbols printed on them, which represent the actions the turtle is allowed to make. But it’s okay if a kid doesn’t understand them, because the only one who needs to know how to move a Robot Turtle around the board at the start of the game is the parent-turned-CPU. That parental assistance makes it easy for kids to jump in and intuitively pick up more advanced programming concepts as they go along.
Here’s how a kid’s first game of Robot Turtles might go: Sitting down, a parent places a child’s turtle on the board, along with a jewel, and then hands their kid some cards to play with. “Put down a card, and I’ll move the turtle. See if you can get the jewel!” When the kids lay down the cards, the grown-up moves the turtle according to the symbols on the card, making a funny noise with their mouth every time the turtle moves (“This is the most essential part of the game!” insists Shapiro). Eventually, through trial-and-error, kids begin to understand what the various cards do.
But Robot Turtles has other tricks up its sleeve. When a child eventually stumbles onto the jewel for the first time, they unlock a video-game-style achievement: “Congratulations! You’ve unlocked the ice world!” a parent will cry out. They then go on to the next level, where ice blocks have been arranged around the jewel, creating a simple maze to navigate. The pattern of cards needed to reach the jewel become more specific. Beat the ice world, and the next thing unlocked is a laser, which can melt ice blocks but can only be fired a maximum of four times. Next comes stone blocks, which can’t be melted with a laser, only navigated around. By the time they’ve played the game for a few sessions, a child is able to lay down an entire “program” of cards at once while being followed around by their helpful friend, the Function Frog: an amphibian NPC which can pull off complicated and repetitive tasks, just like a computer subroutine.
It’s a brilliant idea on a number of levels. For one, Robot Turtles teaches kids the logic of programming without bogging them down with machine language. It’s a game that is so intuitive that a child doesn’t even need to know the rules before they sit down and play: only a grown-up needs to know the rules. Finally, it’s co-operative — up to four kids can play at once — instead of combative. No wonder Shapiro was so excited by his idea that he took several months off from his job at Google to make Robot Turtles a reality.
Judging from the Kickstarter campaign’s early runaway success, Shapiro isn’t the only parent excited about Robot Turtles. But why teach your kids to program at all? That’s the million dollar question, and Shapiro has a million dollar answer.
“Just because I want to teach my kids to program doesn’t mean I necessarily want them to be programmers, anymore than I teach them math to be mathematicians,” says Shapiro. “But there are some skills like math and writing that help you no matter what you do with your life, where mastery of that skill sets you up for future success, and I believe programming is the new superpower that will augment anyone’s ability to be successful in the future. I don’t know where technology is going to take the world in my kids’ lifetimes, but I want them to be able to lead and not follow whatever revolution comes along, and knowing how to program will help them do that.”
If that resonates with you, Robot Turtles can be pre-ordered now on Kickstarter for just $29.99, and Shapiro promises that it will be in your child’s hands one way or another in time for Christmas.