Are Hardware Toys the Future of Kids’ Coding?

Plenty of games and apps teach kids to code. But educators and toymakers are betting that teaching computer science isn’t about coding at all.

“Computers have gotten so user-friendly that modern people, maybe not just kids, expect the computer to come to us,” Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novelist and computer science teacher, told EdSurge earlier this year. “But if you want to get into the nitty gritty of how to create new technology, you need to understand how the computer works natively.”

The proliferation of devices has made technology a ubiquitous presence in children’s lives. But that does not mean they understand how anything works. Enter computer hardware toys, which hopefully build kids’ understanding of how electronics function.

The creators of hardware toys believe that playing will endear technology to kids and inspire their academic interest. Kano, a build-it-yourself computer kit, spells out the ideal progression in its company tagline: “Make a computer, learn what’s inside, play with code. Spark a lifelong passion for computing and the arts.”

There’s a market for toys like these. In the most recent available data from 2013, Arduino had sold 300,000 units official units, with 700,000 more unofficial imitation units in circulation. Arduino makes a microcontroller that forms the basis of do-it-yourself digital devices.

Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of a credit card, has sold three million units to date. The cost of entry is decreasing, too. The latest iteration of the Raspberry Pi, the Pi Zero, is just $5.

Some tools are even free: in July, the BBC released the BBC micro:bit, a palm-sized codeable computer, which will be distributed free to every UK student in year seven, usually students age 11 to 13. The hope is to engage students with the new UK coding curriculum.

What are they all for?

Alex Klein, creator and CEO of Kano, the computer kit mentioned above, believes that hardware toys challenge kids more than coding even as they make it easier to learn the basics of computers. When using Kano, students are tasked with building a computer from a box that contains a Raspberry Pi processor, a keyboard, a memory card and a speaker. Parents provide their own monitors. Coding without understanding computers, Klein posits, is destined to fail.

To read the rest of this article, published in EdSurge, please click here.