With KIBO, young children can become programmers, engineers, designers, artists, dancers, choreographers, and writers.

There are an increasing number of toys for helping kids learn by programming and building robots. Now Boston Device Development and a startup called KinderLab Robotics have entered the fray with a Kickstarter campaign to get kids engaged in robotic programming younger than ever.

The campaign is for a robotic building kit called KIBO, the invention of Tufts University Professor Marina Bers. The toy provides a series of blocks that can be turned into robots and teaches children programming fundamentals through physical play, Bers said during an interview with Design News. 

Boston Device Development is providing the mechanical design and product packaging for KIBO, as well as developing the supply chain development. Educational toy startup KinderLab Robotics will market and sell KIBO. 

KIBO is aimed at children four to seven years of age, with a goal of instilling in children at as young an age as possible an interest and affinity for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields but with a varied way of teaching that includes the different ways that children’s minds work.

Bers told us:
Our motivation was to help children, from a very young age, to develop the technological skills they will need in the 21st century. We know that if we do not start early on, stereotypes such as “I am not good at math and science” start to form as young as fourth grade, so we need to provide opportunities for young children when they are truly open to learn anything.

Bers said she was inspired to design the toy from her own experience trying and failing to find technology that could help her own children learn. “When I started this work in 2008, I had three young children and I did not find any technologies out there that could help them learn to code and gain problem-solving skills in an age-appropriate way,” she told us.

The kit is aimed at appealing not only to children who are naturally technically minded, but also to those that have minds more in line with creative arts, cultural interests, or physical activity, Bers said.

KIBO lets kids use their imaginations to make almost anything — a character from a story, a carousel, a dancer, a helicopter, etc. A child can create a sequence of instructions — or a program for a robot — using the wooden KIBO blocks, which have written on them the activity they can perform. Using this method, kids can design a robot and decorate it with art materials, and scan the blocks with the KIBO body to tell the robot what to do, Bers said. A simple power button turns the robot on to perform its appointed role.

The design process provides the children with a number of skills that will prepare them for careers not only in STEM fields but also business, creative, and other areas of work. Bers told us:

With KIBO, young children can become programmers, engineers, designers, artists, dancers, choreographers, and writers. When playing with KIBO, young children learn programming ideas that are directly related to foundational concepts in math, literacy, science, and humanities. These include sequencing, modularity, cause-and-effect, and patterns. Research shows that sequencing is foundational for academic success, for math and literacy development, as well as for executive function.

The toy — developed after 15 years of research in learning technologies and child development — also helps children develop mind habits such as problem-solving and executive function when they plan and execute projects with different kinds of constraints such as time, resources, and materials. Bers added:

 We really want to make a social impact. We want every single pre-school and school and home with a young child to have access to KIBO and other learning technologies like KIBO. As these children grow in a technological world, we believe that early exposure will help them become contributors and not only consumers of the technological world.

So far, three different generations of a KIBO prototype have been tested with children and teachers at Tufts University, and Bers and the development team have decided on a final version that is now being produced, with the first run of 1,000 to be assembled this summer. The Kickstarter campaign aims to raise $50,000 for the production of the first kits and had at the time this article was written raised $43,795.

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