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Playing, Learning, Hacking

The lines between playing and hacking are blurring as new toys make it easier for younger children to grasp the concepts behind coding, and prep them for a STEM and tech-filled future.

The next generation is growing up in a tech-centric culture, and teaching them how to thrive in the digital world is being made a priority. Ypulse’s research found that 70% of Millennial parents would rather their child(ren) excel in math and science, while only 6% would prefer the arts. There is no doubt that a future in STEM is being prioritized both overt and indirect ways for today’s kids, and the next generation is being encouraged to make coding their second language.

Over the last few years, we have seen growth of tools and programs that teach coding to kids, and a number of organizations have made moves to support coding programs that teach children the various programming languages. Last November, Disney Interactive and created a programming tutorial around the hit animated movie Frozen, in which “female tech role models” talk participants through basic coding in order to move Elsa and Anna, and create patterns into ice. After 20 steps have been completed, the young coders are given a certificate to share on social media. Google’s Made With Code initiative aims to inspire and foster young female programmers, as only 1% of young girls in America are interested in computer science careers. Their first project encouraged girls to code by allowing them to create a custom 3D printed bracelet that will then be shipped to them for free. In December, the Holiday Lights project invited any kid to animate the lights of the White House Christmas trees by entering blocks of code online, and the Santa Tracker site and app includes games and challenges that teach Javascript coding.

Computer programs, sites, and games are clearly being used as tools to teach the basics of the coding process to kids. The challenge is for learning to feel like playing, and so for the youngest of the next generation, physical playthings are also being created to embrace technology, and emphasize its inquisitive, educational, and engaging possibilities. This month we’ve looked at some of the newest big trends in toys, and we’re beginning to see the emergence of playthings blurring the lines between playing and learning to make it easier for younger children to grasp the concepts behind coding, and prep them for a tech-filled future. Here are three making hacking and coding an offline endeavor, and letting kids get hands on with the ABCs off STEM:


Wildly popular video game Minecraft allows users to build their own virtual worlds, and has stolen the undivided attention of many kids, and even some adults, everywhere. New toy startup Piper was created with the idea that if kids loved building in the virtual world, they might love to build in the real world too. Piper is a “toolbox for budding engineers” that lets kids can play Minecraft and tackle challenges on screen by simultaneously building hardware, like controllers, buzzers, and LED lights, offline. The goal is to help a robot on a mission to a hostile planet, and each piece of hardware built advances the robot and unlocks new components of the game. Players can customize levels, share their creations, and let friends play, making the activity more communal. The Piper team is currently running a Kickstarter campaign that has almost tripled its goal in five days.


To grasp the basic building blocks of coding and the if-then logic behind computer programming, younger kids can now play ball—Hackaball, that is. The toy is both a playing ball and a computer, which gets programmed through an iPad app. The hacking begins the moment kids open the box: Hackaball comes disassembled, and kids’ first “mission” is to put it together. Once assembled, Hackaball detects motions, like being dropped, bounced, or kicked, and can be “hacked” to control its behavior. With the iPad, children can decide what happens to the ball with each motion, if it lights up red, squawks, or both. The ball comes pre-loaded with several games, like hot potato and truth or dare, and children can also invent their own by using the simple coding platform on Hackaball’s app. The product is indicative of a growing desire for toys and gadgets that don’t keep users stuck in a chair or glued to a screen, and a parent and designer behind Hackaball says, “it’s kind of the dream, getting them outside by leveraging their interest in technology.” Hackaball is on course to reach their $100,000 Kickstarter goal in the next month.


For kids who have already mastered basic coding, there’s not much of a next step and they can become bored with programs and games. Bitsbox, a new service from two former Google employees, is out to combat these obstacles. The site declares that “Bitsbox aims to be the friendliest way for kids to learn to become programmers—even if they want to be doctors, firefighters or fairy princesses when they grow up.” The monthly $30 subscription sends children a box of fun tech goodies like stickers and a mystery toy via snail mail, including an activity book filled with apps they can program and then change as they learn more. The service gives kids physical items to be surprised by, along with an ongoing coding education, and each game that they code can be sent to their devices via QR code so they can play with their own creations. The first round of boxes will be sent out this April, and over 2,500 families have reportedly already subscribed.