Spielwarenmesse: Robotics: How children and young people learn to program in a playful way

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Robotics: How children and young people learn to program in a playful way

from Peter Thomas

“Programming is a cultural technique today,” says Christopher Cederskog in conversation with online magazine, Spirit of Play, about the development of programmable toy robots. The 36-year-old economist is General Manager Europe for Wonder Workshop, focusing on sales and marketing. With its interactive robots and apps, the Silicon Valley company, founded in 2012, appeals especially to children between the ages of five and 14 years. The most important European markets are Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.

Spielwarenmesse®: Mr Cederskog, we keep hearing that coding is today’s most important foreign language for children and young people. If so, are your robots more learning tools than toys?

Christopher Cederskog

Christopher Cederskog: At Wonder Workshop, we believe that learning and play must be inseparable. Because it is easiest for children to learn if they have fun and feel a sense of achievement. And our robots do just that: They establish a connection experienced on the tactile and the visual levels between the digital programming and what it achieves.

Can you break that down?

C. C.: This means that complex, abstract codes are converted into a movement of the robot. This gives children an important sense of achievement. But at the same time, they have the chance to repair errors in their programmes, to change them, to tinker with new solutions. To me this looks like the perfect mix of play and learning.

That seems quite complex. Isn’t robotics more for older children and young people?

C. C.: By no means! These days, even infants take a keen interest in digital things around the house. And we should use that for learning through play: Instead of just swiping around a screen, using robotics, girls and boys can see for themselves the results of their creations on a tablet or smartphone through a physical toy. But naturally there are differences: For younger children, the physical toy has a special place, whereas older children and young people are more intrigued by free programming. But, basically, the appeal for all age groups is to experience their codes coming to life through a robot. That promotes self-confidence and awakens lasting interest in STEM topics.

And could adults also benefit from it?

C. C.: Yes, that is happening as we speak: Just as managers work with building blocks to formulate innovations or render processes understandable, programmable robots are used to practice problem-solving abilities and logical thinking. For example, with the Cue, this can be integrated for adults in an entertaining way for work and training. Playfully, with just a few clicks, they learn what an algorithm is and how JavaScript works.

Key word JavaScript: Cue, which appeared in 2018, relies on two levels of programming that you can switch between: JavaScript, which you just mentioned, and a graphic interface for the block programming. How important is this dual approach for children?

C. C.: For children, block-based programming languages like Blockly and Scratch generally serve as the point of entry to the complexities of programming: They are easy to use and intuitively understood. Through the direct transfer of the visual blocks to the more abstract JavaScript, 11- to 14-year-old children intuitively understand the meaning of the JavaScript commands. And we arouse young people’s enthusiasm for robotics and programming with the more complex JavaScript. It basically holds true for all age levels that children’s and young people’s interest in robotic applications must be caught at the right stage of development.

What skills does playful programming teach?

C. C.: These are problem-solving skills, logical thinking, creativity, and perseverance – all skills that benefit children just as much as they do working adults.

Before Spielwarenmesse 2018, Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop, said that in 2050 around 40 percent of all employees could be required to have programming knowledge. What is the response of educational policy to this?

C. C.: Programming is already found in the curriculum of most primary school pupils around the world – a development that Wonder Workshop anticipated in 2014 with the development of Dash. We believe that programming knowledge is indispensable for everyone to a certain extent, since it enables us all to understand and actively use the digital processes that confront us every day, instead of just passively consuming them. Today, programming has become a true cultural technique. Or, in other words: For us, coding is the new construction toy.

In what achievements does Wonder Workshop take particular pride?

C. C.: That our robots are already deployed in over 15,000 schools around the world. Because we want to reach as many girls and boys as possible coming from very different social backgrounds to playfully motivate them for STEM topics. This is an important basis for their confidence in dealing with such topics going forward.

What will the coming interfaces between classic play and robotics look like?

C. C.: A good example of this is our Dot Creativity Kit. This is the perfect entrée to robotics and programming for smaller children, in that it combines classic play ideas with a digital component. The kit contains any number of crafting ideas that are brought to life through programming elements. Already here we can see where the actual added value of the Wonder Workshop products lies: in the combination of a physical toy robot and the digital programming element of our apps.

What about the robot’s language ability? Do Cue and others learn the mother tongue of their customers throughout the world?

C. C.: The product language plays an important role in order to ensure a simple, direct and playful access to our products. That, in fact, is why we work on further translations of the interface. But we are also always happy to hear the success stories of children who manage to learn English and coding at the same time.

How do you assess the future importance of artificial intelligence (AI) for the electronic toy?

C. C.: Products like our Cue robot already rely on an emotional AI, intended to ease children’s access to robotics. One example is Cue’s integrated chatbot function, through which the robot interacts with its users. It becomes progressively smarter through use. But in future, children will place greater and greater demands on such products. Because they learn at an incredibly high speed. They will soon be able to deal directly with the AI and thus impact programming. This handling of AI will become a matter of course for children in the years to come – just as programming is today for many.


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