Even if kids aren’t old enough to know how to read, they can still start to learn the basic concepts of coding. Primo, a new project up on Kickstarter now, is a simple kit that a four-year-old can use to program a cute plywood robot. Pop a series of colored boxes into a compiler board, and kids can tell the robot where to go around the room.
“Primo was the answer to a question,” says Filippo Yacob, managing director of the startup that makes the toy. “How can we develop a product that helped children become creators, and not just consumers? And what does it mean to be a creator in the world we live in?” Since we live in a digital world, Yacob explains, it makes sense that a modern creator should know how to code.
The team started with Logo, the programming language that first came out of the MIT Media Lab in the 1970s. “We simplified the way Logo works and made it into a toy, so it could be accessible to the youngest possible audience,” Yacob says.
There are a growing number of toys aimed at teaching kids to code at younger and younger ages. Take Play-I another company that recently raised money on Kickstarter. Primo can be used by preliterate kids, or those who are bilingual and haven’t mastered English yet. It’s also meant to teach only the logic behind programming—in this case, the basic concept of the queue, or executing instructions in a certain order—rather than programming itself.
“Just like you would learn your ABC's before you can read a book, the same applies to programming. You need to develop a logical mind set that will allow you to advance step by step,” Yacob says.
"Cubetto," the robot, was designed to appeal to both boys and girls. "There is a lot of debate about STEM products for early learning being all targeted at boys, while girls are sold pretty glittery pink toys," Yacob explains. "We sort of agreed, and if you look at cool products that teach sciences to children, they are all kind of boy-ish. We originally had a car, but realized that Cubetto instead was a neutral choice."
As they've tested the toy, kids have quickly figured out how to use it. "Children as young as three managed to play, while in some cases even adults couldn't understand how to use it, which was quite amusing," Yacob says. As they grow older, kids can plug the robot into their own computer and continue to program it with Scratch or Arduino.
"It's a toy that can accompany children throughout their entire programming education, and even as adults they will be able to crank open the robot, and easily add parts to the robot like LEDs, buzzers, and other sensors," says Yacob.
The toy is completely open source. "It's counter intuitive to think a company can be profitable while releasing open-source products," Yacob says. "But we live in a landscape where information travels quickly, anyone who's passionate about electronics can make a Primo if they had enough time to figure it out, and eventually they would." By making it open source, the team hopes to build a community of people who want to contribute to making the product better.
"We want to be a different type of consumer product company, and an open-source product like Primo is our way of saying "Hello World!" with a gift to all in a way," says Yacob.