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Innovative Toys Teach Children Technical Topics
Programming, robotics, electronics, construction: These subjects are all being taught through play, their inventors say.
By Judith Pfeffer - Filed May 30, 2014

Here is Bo, a toy robot, playing the xylophone -- but only if his little master programs him correctly.

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Back in the day, we played with the Easy-Bake oven and the ShrinkyDink.

But apparently today’s tots want to program robots and wire their own dollhouses.

Or so the entrepreneurs behind some high-tech toy startups would have you believe.

For instance, former Google manager Vikas Gupta created the now 15-employee company Play-I in Mountain View, Calif.

Bo ($169) and Yana ($59) are toy robots programmed using a smartphone application to roam around, pick up objects and tell stories. Gupta got $1.4 million on Kickstarter and $8 million in venture capital in March. The company website advises pre-orders for holiday-time delivery.

Robot Turtles by ThinkFun “for the little programmer in your life” is the highest-funded tabletop game in Kickstarter history, far surpassing its $25,000 goal with $630,000 in pledges.

How little? The board game is advertised for kids ages 3 to 8. The premise seems to be that children can learn the basics of programming before they even master tying their shoes or riding a bike.

It’s already into its second edition – the initial one sold out -- and one analyst had this to say about its appeal: “Before too long, kids figure out the secret of Robot Turtles: It lets the kids control the grown-ups! The little programmers put instruction cards down, driving the turtles through the maze, but the grown-up is the computer, executing commands on the board.”

Two others bidding to be found under the evergreen in December are more about the hardware.

“The easiest way to get started with electronics” is the slogan of littleBits. The blocks snap together with magnets, and there is no wrong way to place them. The company’s website says the product has won more than 20 awards. And the female inventor, Ayah Bdeir, who earned her master’s degree at the MIT Media Lab, gave a short TED Talk in February 2012 to place her creation within the overall history of construction and electronics. 

But Bdeir is hardly the only female innovator in the playground space. See also Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks, who came up with Roominate, a kit to build a dollhouse, or other structure, including wiring, motors and other electronics. 

The initial funding for this, $86,000, also came from Kickstarter. The slogan on the website is “Every Girl is an Artist, Architect, Engineer, and Visionary!”

The two earned their master’s degrees in engineering at Stanford and specifically see their product as helping to redress the dearth of girls and women in STEM.

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