Spielwarenmesse: Why wood is also perfect for programming

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Cubetto Primo Toys
  Movers & shakers

Movers & shakers

Why wood is also perfect for programming

from Harald Hemmerlein

Filippo Yacob was named one of Forbes Magazine’s top “30 under 30”. The designer of the multi-award-winning Cubetto toy robot had managed to swiftly raise USD 1.6 million on Kickstarter to take the product to market. In the interview, he explains how an unusual idea, especially in the area of toys, can bring success.

Spielwarenmesse®: With Cubetto you are introducing a robot made from wood. Choosing this material seems unusual. Why did you choose wood and not plastic material which many would expect?

Filippo Yacob: The birth of my son inspired me to create Cubetto and start Primo Toys, a wooden robot that teaches coding to children aged 3 and up. It’s a hands-on, screen-less coding system. An inclusive solution that merges LOGO Turtle-inspired programming with Montessori learning principles. What sets it apart from other coding toys is not only that Cubetto works without a screen, but it is made of natural material.

We made observations in kindergartens and discovered that toddler toys and games made of wood are the most loved by children. Wooden blocks are timeless toys for kids. Parents are also reassured by the fact that wooden toys are tough enough to stand up to being handled by toddlers. Cubetto and the Interface Board are designed to be touched and handled. It was vital to choose the right material and for us, that meant a natural material.

You say Cubetto is the first system to teach children basic coding without using a screen. To make Cubetto and machines nowadays work without bits and bytes seems almost impossible. How do you manage that with Cubetto?

F.Y.: Broken down to the simplest explanation, programs are nothing but sequences of instructions. You don't necessarily need screens or text to communicate with a machine as the Cubetto playset demonstrates. For us it's about hiding the technology for a magical outcome – wood that comes to life in a manner of speaking, that allows children to learn even without realising it, as the learning follows naturally from play.

The playset is the easiest way for children to start learning computer programming. It consists of a wooden robot named Cubetto, which interacts with a physical interface board via bluetooth. Children tell Cubetto where to go by placing colourful coding blocks in the interface board. By placing the blocks in different patterns on the control panel, children create sequences of instructions that program the robot’s movement. In the process, they develop computational thinking skills that help them understand the basic principles of coding – all of this, in a very age-appropriate way that respects a child’s natural way of learning.

Alongside this, a collection of beautifully illustrated maps and activity books. Coding is also about creativity and applying logical thinking to storytelling. You don't need a screen for that either, you just need your imagination. Our tangible, durable cloth maps make this happen. They help give a structure to the learning and introduce topics as varied as city living and ancient civilisations. The beauty of Cubetto is that it encourages coding through hands-on play – making learning much more enjoyable while also developing logical thinking, sequencing and coding skills.

By not using a screen as an interface between man and machine you reduce the age barrier to create an appropriate access for children to the topic of coding. At what age are children ready for Cubetto?

F.Y.: Children from the age of 3 can start playing with Cubetto. This is the age in which in some countries children are introduced to letters and numbers. And this is the age when the fundamentals of computational thinking and the building blocks of programming logic can be introduced as well.

Cubetto represents a major benchmark in the field of computer programming, as it significantly lowers the age barrier for learning to code by removing screen-based interaction. It is a Montessori-approved coding toy that fully embraces Montessori principles of self-directed learning and respecting children’s natural developmental stages. Beyond supporting a computing curriculum, educators also use the wooden robot to explore subjects such as science and maths, geography and history, as well as art and language, through a holistic narrative.

Are you active worldwide?

F.Y.: Over the last three years, Primo Toys has grown from a little idea into an industry-challenging global toy company. We have operations spanning four continents, manufacturing facilities in South-East Asia, sales and distribution hubs in North America and head offices in Europe. We sold 20,000 units between Q4 2016 and have sold just as many in Q1 2017. Demand is soaring. We’re already represented in more than 90 countries and are in a position for great growth this year.

To finance your company you went spectacular ways and also received support from well-known investors. What were the key points? Would you recommend your way of building your business to other start-ups of the toy industry?

F.Y.: The company has enjoyed the support of high profile investors, including Randi Zuckerberg and Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi. Cubetto also became the most crowdfunded educational technology invention in Kickstarter’s history, raising $1.6m from backers in 96 countries. Crowdfunding was a great way to launch a product for us. In truth, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. The one piece of advice I would offer however, is to stay focused, and communicate simply and clearly one’s value proposition, story and idea.

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