WASHINGTON, September 11, 2013 — Every parent knows the drill. Eager to foster your children’s development and prepare them for life, you buy an “educational toy” that promises to teach them as they play. Within a few weeks, the toy lies abandoned and forgotten. Its lack of genuine educational content has become all too evident, and it joins the Island of Misfit Educational Toys.
The Educational Toys Market is Often Disappointing
It’s easy to understand why the educational toy market is so often a joyless desert of disappointment. The Baby Genius angle can sell a lot of toys, but there’s seldom anything behind this notion but marketing spin. In the rare instances when a toy with real educational chops does make it to market, it’s so narrowly focused on its task and limited in its playability that the child quickly becomes bored.
Educational Toys should be Engaging and Fun
For a toy to teach, it has to be engaging and fun over the long term. That means growing with the child and generating new ways to play, new ideas to explore, and new successes to achieve over the months and even years after the toy comes out of the box.
What would it take to create a toy that’s both educational and fun to play? And what would we want it to teach? A Silicon Valley startup company is working on that solution. For Play-i, a startup founded by an all-star team of tech entrepreneurs, the answer to both questions is programming.
“A toy that can teach kids to write programs can not only provide the endless variety of play opportunities that kids crave. It can also help them learn ways of thinking and solving problems—skills that will be invaluable as they go through life,” said Play-i CEO Vikas Gupta in a recent interview with this reporter.
Educational Toys that Teach Kids Computer Programming
Programming has already become a core discipline of the modern era. By the time today’s toddlers graduate from high school, it will be all the more pervasive. Most jobs will involve some type of programming, from full-time app developers to business workers writing widgets and applets to support their office work. Society will be increasingly divided between tech haves and have-nots.
Parents and teachers worry about the declining performance of students in math and science. But unless we focus just as much on programming from the earliest grades–as countries from Estonia to Vietnam already do–we’ll have even greater problems filling the jobs of the future.
Play-i makes programming accessible and fun for kids by breaking it down into a series of experiences based on core concepts that the company calls “powerful ideas.” The company targets the fun factor head-on through the vehicle that is used for these lessons: a robot.
The powerful ideas start simply and build from there. To begin with, the child learns that he or she can control a robot (or anything else) with a program, grappling with ideas like conditionality, reusability, and looping follow. Soon, children are creating subroutines and telling long stories with their robots.
Exploration and Self-Learning Through Educational Toys
At every stage of play, children are led through inquiry and exploration, as self-learning, repetition, and reinforcement help them truly grasp the underlying concepts. Instead of passively receiving information, they experience it directly and put new ideas to work immediately to achieve their own goals. As their sophistication grows, they can take on increasingly complex challenges, so they never outgrow the toy or exhaust its possibilities for play and exploration.
While preparing a new generation of programmers for success would be valuable in itself, the educational value of Play-i extends across disciplines. “As kids learn programming in context, the building blocks they master lead them to a larger understanding of the world around them and how it works, and of how people approach and solve problems,” Mr. Gupta added.
Critical Thinking Skills learned via Educational Robots
More than just computer syntax, children learn the critical thinking skills at the core of programming, enabling them to be more analytical and logical in the way they face challenges in their own lives. That’s a lot to get out of a toy–certainly more than being able to name a branded character on sight or repeating the names of colors from a video prompt.
With initial products still in development, Play-i isn’t quite there yet. The company is currently prototyping and conducting user testing with kids, and they hope to launch their products through a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter later this year. If they succeed, they could change the way we think about playtime–and consign a generation of brightly colored duds to the Island of Misfit Toys.
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