Californian startup Play-i has built programmable robots designed for children from age five. The aim is to teach kids coding in a fun and intuitive way.

Play-I robots teach programming to young children


Over the last few years a number of robots and kits for children have been launched on the market. However, most of these require rapid learning, which in turn demands a basic level of education and so they are not suitable for very young children. These robots are not mere toys; they also aim to teach children, to initiate them into computer programming. The idea of using robots to teach children programming, mathematical concepts and problem solving is nothing new. More than 40 years ago Seymour Papert, a professor at the  Massachussetts Institute of Technology, demonstrated just how effective hands-on learning can be, with Logo, a programming language combined with a small robot called the Logo Turtle. Now a group of engineers who formerly worked with Google, Apple and Symantec have got together to create their own Silicon Valley startup with the aim of providing this type of learning to very small children. The company, Play-i, which last October raised $1.4 million via a crowdfunding campaign, has developed two robots, whichuse a Bluetooth-based remote control app – currently iOS-only – to help children as young as five learn computer programming in an engaging and intuitive way.

Progressive learning for very young children

The two robots that Play-i has developed are called Bo and Yana. Bo has wheels and can move around. It is equipped with remote sensors, an accelerometer and a gyroscope. You can add extra parts – arms and other accessories – so that, for example, it can play a xylophone or push objects. Bo’s stationary cousin Yana is smaller and uses light and sounds as a basis for interaction. The robots can be programmed from iOS devices connected via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and the inventors have come up with a series of introductory games to teach the children the rudiments of coding. Using the visual programming interface, children build sequences of actions and learn through play and exploration. The sequences vary in difficulty and increase in complexity as the child becomes more familiar with the interface and the robot. The most advanced users will be capable of programming the robot using programs such as MIT-developed Scratch and Google’s Blockly or directly by writing lines of code.

Robots promoting practical learning

Computer programming is now being more widely taught at school while at the same time robots are starting to be used as learning aids and learning by doing is also increasingly seen as more effective. Meanwhile, ed-tech is booming, with the surge in popularity of Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs), educational social networks such as EduClipper, and learning platforms such as Desire2Learn and Open Class Exchange. Such technological advances benefit students by making access to education easier and more personalized. Similarly, robots have much to offer pupils with special needs, such as those suffering from autism. Dallas-based RoboKind has recently brought out Robots4Autism, a program designed to help autistic children that uses humanoid robots for developmental learning. Play-i plans to offer a whole suite of accessories enabling its robots to be customized to perform a wider range of actions. The Play-i inventors take the view that tablet devices should not merely serve to use new technology but also to create innovations. They are particularly keen to teach children coding, a skill that looks set to become indispensable in the near future. Bo and Yana are due to go on general sale this summer priced at $166 and $69 respectively.

By Manon Garnier