• Dr. Timothy Smith

Can Toys Turn Your Kids into Computer Programming Entrepreneurs?

Legos with Dad

Photo Source: Max Pixel

Toys and childhood go hand in hand and amazingly that has held true far back into ancient times. An article published in the Siberian Times, titled “Magical New 4,500 Year Old Finds Add to 'Oldest Toy Collection in the World'” describes toys found in a child’s Bronze Age grave site in the Republic of Khakassia in Southern Siberia. The toys dating over 4,500 years old included an animal carved out of antler and a human head carved from soapstone. The bodies of the toys made of some sort of organic material did not survive. Ancient Egyptian toys included pull toys such as a cat or a chariot on wheels from Persia. Amazingly, the Neanderthals, relatives of humans that lived in Europe from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago when they went extinct, had toys (10.1038/nature13621). In an article by Ryan Jacobs for Pacific Standard titled “Cavemen Were Awesome Parents,” the author notes that archeological research has found that Neanderthals made little toy hand axes for their children and let them practice making stone tools.

Some toys serve to amuse, but many toys also serve as practice for the things children will have to do as adults. Baby dolls for example provide the opportunity to develop many physical, emotional, and social skills. For instance, kids can learn motor skills by changing the dolls clothes. Stephanie Brown notes in “What Kids Learn by Playing with Dolls and Figures,” that cuddling and nurturing a baby doll allows a toddler to mimic the way one gets treated by a parent. (verywellfamily.com) Toys can also have aspirational qualities such as the battery powered game Operation, which consists of an operating table with a patient with cavities containing plastic pieces such as a bucket for water on the knee. Players try to remove the pieces from the cavities without touching the sides with the tweezers or the patient’s red nose lights up. Operation builds hand-eye coordination and also suggests a future career as a surgeon, which many parents considered to be a top job when the game debuted in 1965 and remains a top job now.

Today, people look at the remarkable success of entrepreneurs in the tech industry such as Mark Zuckerberg who launched Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard in 2004 and has become one of the top ten richest men in the world because of it. (Forbes.com) The proliferation of computer programming jobs and the potential for entrepreneurial success have launched many toys for children of almost any age that claim to help children learn to write computer code or simply to code. Coding toys promise to introduce coding and promote the critical thinking and problem solving inherent in coding. For parents that want their child to get started right away, Fisher-Price offers their Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar for ages 3-6. “Code-a-Pillar features 9 easy-to-connect segments that preschoolers can arrange and rearrange to “tell” the toy how to move: forward, left, right, wiggle, dance or even wait for a couple seconds before moving again.” (fisher-price.com) Developed for teachers to teach coding to students ages 4-10, Kodable offers a colorful computer interface that progressively teaches students to code using visual concepts and increasing levels of difficulty. (kodable.com) According to their website, Kodable claims that half of the elementary schools in the US have used Kodable. The company also offers a home version for parents who want create more coding opportunities beyond school. Lego offers a toy called Boost with the motto “Build Code Play” that teaches coding while building different robots such as Vernon the Robot and Frankie the Cat. The toy does need a smartphone or tablet for the kids to access the visual coding language that lets them program the robots to move and even play music.

Toys have figured prominently in child growth and development for thousands of years, and archeological findings indicate that our ancient relatives the Neanderthals also made toys for their children. Toys play many roles from amusement to helping children develop physically, socially, and emotionally to prepare them for adulthood. Toys can also suggest careers for children such as surgeon with the game Operation or veterinarian with the Pet Vet Clinic. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, they estimate that there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs available in 2020 but only 400,000 available computer science graduates to fill those jobs. Combine the good job prospects with the remarkable success of tech entrepreneurs, it makes sense that companies now offer a wide array of toys and games that help children to learn to code starting even before they can read in kindergarten. Toys such as Code-a-Pillar and Boost teach the logic and sequencing of coding. In the age of artificial intelligence and massive computerization of our world, it makes sense that parents want to help their children get a basic foundation in computer programming through a growing selection toys and games. However, Tia Ghose, a senior writer at LiveScience, points out in her article titled, “Do Computer Coding Toys for Kids Really Work?” that little research supports the assertion that coding games make kids into coders. I think that research is required to show that coding toys do make kids into coders, but at least the concepts and practice can demystify coding for a new generation.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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