Toy robots are nothing new. In the 1980s, the R2D2-like Tomy Verbot or the clunky Milton Bradley Big Trak let kids program their movements or actions using voice commands or a keypad.
The marketing for those robots focused mostly on the fun — and, in the case of the Big Trak, the ability to . These days, toy companies have a different message for parents as they hawk their coding toys: Your kids will have fun, but they’ll also be prepared for the jobs of the future.
, the maker of the Dash robot, says it’s helping create “tomorrow’s out-of-the-box innovators.” is “inspiring the creators of tomorrow.”
It’s a message that’s resonating with parents. A says 67% of parents believe that toys with a STEM or STEAM (that’s science, technology, engineering, art, and math) focus are the primary way to encourage science and math development in young children. Coding robots and toys aren’t a category the industry tracks, but the numbers are growing, according to the industry group.
If toy companies have their way, parents will be snagging coding robots for their kids during the upcoming holiday shopping season, hoping their children develop even a basic understanding of coding fundamentals. Technology education proponents say it’s not a misplaced dream.
“It’s become such foundational knowledge that, just like we teach electricity or gravity, we need to include some basic computing and computer science for even our youngest students, so they understand the world they’re living in and they’re interacting with,” said Jake Baskin, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association.
All the bots
Today’s coding robots and toys are far more sophisticated than their 1980s cousins—and they start simply as kids attempt to code their robots to move in certain ways, dance or light up.
Many use easy drag-and-drop tools so kids can code on their tablets or smartphones. Others offer screen-free opportunities, such as , which relies on a remote programmer. Others incorporate additional technologies.
With , kids build a robot with LEGO-like blocks and then, using augmented reality, complete various puzzles as their robot moves through a virtual world on Android or Apple devices. Amy Braun, head of marketing and communications for Pai Technology, Botzees’ maker, says incorporating the block play with virtual activities was key for designers. “We believe that physical play is so incredibly necessary,” she says.
Just as coding toys are filling up online carts, so are coding camps and programs for kids in storefronts across the country. A growing number of school districts are also adding computer science instruction at all grade levels. In the last year, according to the , 33 states have passed 57 new laws and regulations that promote the subject.
To code or not to code
Not everyone is convinced that kindergartners need to learn about loops and algorithms.
“It’s an incredibly misguided force in our culture right now, largely driven by an opportunity to make a lot of money,” said Jim Taylor, a psychologist and author of “This pressure to get your kids coding and on the tech train is based entirely on fear … It’s based on the premise that somehow coding is an essential part of [a] kid’s future career path.”
Marina Umaschi Bers, a child development and computer science professor at Tufts University, agrees that kids need to be riding bikes and making mud pies. But, while teaching teens to code might be about preparing them for a career, for young children the focus should be on helping them think in new ways and fostering their creativity, she says.
Bers helped develop the popular for young children and , a screen-free coding robot found in classrooms around the world. She argues that coding should be considered another literacy, taught when kids learn to read.
“Coding is not only problem solving, coding is expression,” she said. “When you are making something, you are creating a product to tell the world about what you like, who you are, your passions.”
For Corey Brady, an assistant professor of mathematics education at Vanderbilt University, a key benefit to kids coding is the opportunity to partner with a computer to create something new and to see their thinking externalized as they fix their code.
For parents considering coding activities for their kids, here’s what to look for.
Steer away from activities that only allow one way to solve a problem. It should be open-ended, Bers said.
Some kids may love coding a robot to move through various obstacles; others will quickly get bored and need something else to remain engaged. “The thing that you’re trying to get done has to be something that you want to get done,” Brady said.
Just like they read with their kids, Bers recommends parents write code with them too. And that’s another reason to start early, Bers said. For parents not comfortable with their own coding skills, kid-focused toys and languages are a lot easier to learn than Java.