Programming isn’t something that has to be done sitting in front of a computer. Your kids can learn the concept of queuing up a series of instructions with programmable toys. Some that don’t require the ability to read. Here is a list of toys that teach programming, arranged by age from youngest to oldest.
Bee-Bot is a great introduction to programming for very young kids who haven’t learned their letters or numbers yet. Bee-Bot is a robotic toy from Terrapin, that runs a variant of the Terrapin Logo language that’s similar to KinderLogo, a simplified version of Logo that includes commands but not parameters.
With traditional Logo programming, most instructions consist of a command, followed by a parameter. For example,
FD 100 tells the turtle (or bee, in this case) to move forward 100 units. Or
RT 90 tells the turtle to turn right 90 degrees. But the Bee-Bot is for kids who haven’t yet learned letters or numbers. The Bee-Bot has buttons for forward, backward, right and left. Each of those numbers has an assumed parameter. For example, the left and right instructions will always turn the Bee-Bot by 90 degrees. So you can make the Bee-Bot make a complete 360-degree turn with four button presses, rather than a
RT instruction with a
After you press a few command buttons, you press the “Go” button, and the Bee-Bot executes your program. It will beep and blink its eyes when it finishes running your program. There are accessories available for the Bee-Bot, such as a set of cards that represent the command buttons that parents or teachers can use to record a representation of the computer program that kids enter into the Bee-Bot. This teaches the foundations of computer programming visually, before kids can read. And before little girls have been brainwashed into believing that computer programming is only for boys.
Pro-Bot is Bee-Bot’s big brother. Pro-Bot is another robotic toy from Terrapin, that runs the full Terrapin Logo language. It has a screen and a keypad, for entering more traditional Logo instructions. It offers a Bee-Bot compatibility mode, where the forward, backward, left and right buttons do the exact same thing as with the Bee-Bot. But it also can run in “Logo mode”, which offers full-fledged Logo programming with parameters. So instead of just pressing the forward button, you press the forward button and you see
FD on the screen. then you enter a distance with the number pad, so that your final command includes both the instruction and the parameter. For example,
Pro-Bot also supports more advanced programming concepts, such as subroutines and loops. You can insert a felt-tipped pen and put the Pro-Bot on a piece of paper, and it can response to pen-up and pen-down commands just like the classic software turtle from Logo. It also has touch sensors in the front and rear bumpers, and light and sound sensors. Kids can uses these sensors to create programs that interact with the real world, instead of simply playing a series of instructions.
Lego WeDo Robotics Construction Kit
The WeDo kit from Lego is the next step up from the Pro-Bot. WeDo is for kids who are ready to build a programmable robot, not just program one that’s already built for them. The kit consists of a special Lego brick with a USB connection that you plug into a computer, and a set of blocks for building real robots. It includes a motor that plugs into the control brick, and several sensors, such as a tilt sensor and a motion sensor. All of these components are compatible with the familiar Lego blocks that you might already own.
Lego WeDo uses a visual programming environment similar to Scratch. But it’s even more accessible to younger kids than Scratch because it doesn’t require the ability to read. Lego says that WeDo is appropriate for kids seven and up, but don’t under estimate younger kids. It’s appropriate for any kid who has learned not to eat Lego pieces. Kids who enjoy programming (and Legos) will probably outgrow the WeDo kit fairly quickly, so don’t wait until 10 or 11 to introduce them to WeDo. Start early so that you can get the most value from it.
Lego Mindstorms is the next step up from the Lego WeDo kit. The Mindstorms kit is more sophisticated in many ways, and is intended for the middle school and high school levels. The motors and sensors in the Mindstorms kit connect to a large, battery-powered “NXT Brick” component, which can be unplugged from the computer. So kids can build autonomous robots with Mindstorms, whereas robots built with the Lego WeDo kit must be connected via USB to a computer. The Mindstorms kit also contains a lot more sensor and motor components, and it can be programmed using many different programming languages and not just the one visual language provided by Lego for the WeDo.
Lego Mindstorms can be programmed with the visual programming language called RCX, which is included with the Mindstorms kit, or with another visual programming language called LabView that’s more sophisticated. Or you can use any number of different code programming languages, such as Java, C, FORTH, Ada, Lua, Visual Basic, Ruby, Python, Google Go, and others.
Unlike the WeDo kit, the Mindstorms components are intended to be compatible with the more advanced Technic kits.
Lego WeDo Image credit: Brad Flickinger