The learn-to-code movement is aiming younger.
MIT and partners, for example, recently released a free iPad app with its visual programming language ScratchJr., so kindergartners could use it to code stories and games even before knowing how to read. Vikas Gupta, a former Google executive who founded the startup Wonder Workshop (formerly called Play-i), has taken a slightly different path. “We learned that in order to make programming of interest to young children, it has to be a tangible product. It can’t be just software,” he told Co.Exist last year.
Enter Dot and Dash–Wonder Workshop’s two new robots that teach coding skills to children as young as five that are now being field tested in a few dozen elementary school classrooms nationally. And they are definitely tangible: Dash hears and responds to sounds, navigates around a room and avoid obstacles, and comes to life with sound and lights. He can even play the xylophone. Dot, on the other hand, doesn’t have wheels and is meant to interact with Dash via Bluetooth and act as a controller. Both have their own customizable “personalities.” On the back end, through four apps that control both robots, they are secretly teaching coding skills such as “event-based programming, sequencing, conditionals, and loops.”
But what’s it like to use these toys if you’re a kid? Will young children actually be as excited to program as adults want them to be? After all, at $349 for the full package and $199 for Dash alone, they are a lot more expensive than a free iPad app.
Fast Company feature editor John Ness took Dot and Dash home for a spin with his six-year-old daughter (prior Fast Company pseudonym: “Bug”). “This seems like a critical time in her development to start playing with the programming concepts involved: simple math and simple sentence construction. She’s just starting to read and write on her own, so she can sponge up the intricacies of computer instructions,” Ness says.
She mostly played with Dash, and overall, Ness reports that she loved it. Below, he takes us through his and his daughter’s experience with several of the Wonder Workshop apps:
This app is designed to get kids to start planning and thinking spatially. You’re supposed to draw a path on the app, and Dash will then traverse that exact path around the room—a few meters wide. When my daughter tried it, Dash would inevitably crash into the coffee table or some other piece of furniture, and then panic in a series of frightened beeps. Her trouble planning this way, and the robot’s apparent discomfort when she failed, turned her off quickly.
On the upside, Dash entranced Bug and her three-year-old sister. Using an attachable arm, Dash plays a series of simple songs on a xylophone placed in front of him (an accessory sold separately). Even more fun, he’ll play any notes the kids choose to put into a “song.” On the downside: clanging toys can grate on parents when they play songs in a loop. When you put a loop of xylophone banging and empower a child to play it again and again, it’s a recipe for a headache. Suffice to say: Their appetite for exploring the structure of music was greater than my appetite for suffering through the learning process.
This was the process Bug was most attracted to, perhaps because the goal was simply to play. She would program Dash with a series of commands: (Do this three times: Move forward, turn right, if your way is blocked then honk your horn.) With a little help from me she understood the commands, and watched as chaos followed in Dash’s wake. He would bulldoze into toys, her sister, or anything else, and then she would create a new sequence for him. There was no need to plan a song or an elaborate driving path, just a couple of actions that might result in unpredictable results. And the process of “coding,”—such a daunting subject if you imagine explaining, say, HTML to a kid—was just a means toward some fun play.
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All in all, Dash seemed like a success. And as children get older, the toy can also grow with them: Wonder Workshop has created an API so programmers can create and launch their own Dash and Dot apps in the Google Play or Apple App stores. The bigger vision is to get children thinking creatively about technology, as Ness has already been doing with his daughter, Bug.
As Vikas puts it: “Do we want kids to grow up as consumers of technology, or do we want them to be creators with what we put in their hands?”