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Kids and coding: Let's give our children control over their imagination

In this week’s Chubby Hubby, Portly Papa column, Aun Koh looks at toys that teach the little ones coding and algorithms while allowing for free play and exploration.

I have a confession: I’m a Kickstarter junkie. Kickstarter is dangerous for someone like me. I’m already, as my wife likes to point out, the worst combination of being both super susceptible to suggestion and a closet (online) shopaholic. Kickstarter layers on top of this the premise of enabling entrepreneurs to make their dreams come true. So how can I resist? 

Of course, I’ve been burnt a fair number of times. I once funded a miracle handphone suction bracket for my car that would stick to surfaces for no more than three seconds before tumbling onto my lap like a penguin trying to fly. A few projects simply never arrived – the entrepreneurs claiming they had to shut down without fulfilling customers’ orders. Nonetheless, time and again, when I’m bored and surfing the web, I find myself drawn back to this site.

Tinkamo is a set of wireless programmable smart building blocks that teach your children to learn how to code (Photo: Tinkamo)

In June last year, while browsing Design & Tech projects, I stumbled across a campaign by a company called Tinkamo. It called itself “smart building blocks” and described its product as a “super duper exciting hands-on coding toy for kids 5-12.” The video was excellent, and showed off a really cool set of smart blocks that would link to each other and your tablet via Bluetooth. They were also designed to fit on and work with Lego. A couple clicks and I had funded a set for T1 as his Christmas present.

By the end of November, I had showed him the video and was sharing updates by Tinkamo with him. We were both optimistic that the kit would get to us by Christmas. This was, as anyone who has ever funded a Kickstarter campaign, wishful and foolish thinking. Kickstarter campaigns are on time about as often, well, actually, I can’t recall a single campaign I’ve funded that has been on time.

READ: Chubby Hubby, Portly Papa: When you're stuck – literally – in the play gym house of pain

Coincidentally, my sister-in-law and her husband had also decided to gift their kids a coding-related Christmas present. They had ordered for their two sons the Piper Computer Kit, a really cool build-it-yourself computer that is powered by a Raspberry Pi. And because her whole family are Minecraft fans, they had ordered the edition with Minecraft already preloaded into the Pi.

She wanted her kids to see what was going on inside a computer. As she put it, “before this, their perception of a computer is a matte-grey metal thing with an apple on it”. She and her husband thought that the experience of actually working with the guts of a device would foster an appreciation for computers and tech in general.

Amusingly though, it was her husband who seemed to be having the most fun with the build. The boys had to keep telling papa to get his big mitts of their present.Minecraft Steve (Photo: Nina Photolab/Unsplash)

Once assembled, the kids then needed to code the buttons in order to play the preloaded games and missions. My sister-in-law reported slow progress – they’ve only gotten through the first few levels. But that’s probably a good thing. If they are anything like my own son, they’d get bored and move on to something else if it were too easy.

Our own Tinkamo Tinker Kit arrived the first week of January. Late for Christmas (which did mean we had to get him an additional present… sigh) but it still created a huge amount of excitement in the house. Okay, T1’s part of the house at least.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see what he dreams up – and if he can actually make it work.

It’s a pretty amazing kit. You get blocks with servos, controller blocks, a robotic claw, all kinds of control buttons, a gearbox, modules with sensors (sound, distance and colour), an LED display module, wheels, and lots of specially crafted Lego-compatible pieces that enable your builds. For initial projects (which are outlined in an accompanying app) you don’t need extra Lego blocks, but if you have them, you can create even more elaborate and intricate things.

T1 immediately got to work. Unfortunately, the old iPad we let him use (sparingly) was my wife’s old first generation iPad mini, which was unable to be upgraded to the required iOS10, so I had to upload the app on my own iPad and surrender it to my eldest. He pretty quickly assembled a cool race car that he could drive remotely. Then he bolted on the LED display and created a range of amusing designs that it could flash.

After that, he added the claw, but by then everything was off balance and it kept tipping over.

(Photo: Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash)

Undeterred, he found that the claw alone provided tons of amusement and ran around the living room, using it to (ever so slowly) grab the wrist of anyone in the room. His little sister, of course, loved this game. 

He then moved on to build a dancing robot chimp. This was quite a complicated build architecturally but only required one motor. I have to admit, it was pretty hilarious and the little red and white robot monkey managed to amuse him, his grandparents and both siblings for a considerable amount of time.

READ: Chubby Hubby, Portly Papa: School holidays are extremely good for business

Of course, there are lots of other coding toys for kids. Lego itself sells roboting coding kits under its Boost brand. It has also invested significantly in education modules that schools can use in the classroom. Some of the latest devices are designed for kids as young as three. While others, more complex, really test the cognitive abilities of tweens and teens. Do a simple search for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) toys – you’ll be astounded by the variety available today.

At least I was, because nothing like these existed when I was a kid.

The great thing about these toys is that they teach kids the fundamental skills involved in coding – or actually teach real coding itself – without the little ones realising what they’re learning. The best kits also allow for experimentation and free play, allowing your little ones the joy of feeling in control and trying new things. 

Right now, I’m smiling away while T1 dreams up his next build. We’ve downloaded the plans for a tissue monster from the Tinkamo app, but he’s said he also wants to create his own robot. Frankly, I can’t wait to see what he dreams up – and if he can actually make it work.

Chubby Hubby, Portly Papa is a regular column about adventures in fatherhood from Aun Koh.

Source: CNA/pw