By Joni Blecher
Joni Blecher is a freelance writer who has spent her career covering tech and a myriad of lifestyle topics. When she's not writing, you can find her exploring the food scene in Portland, Oregon.
At an early age, many kids get computer-like games designed to teach things like basic reading and math skills. Once in school, computers and tablets are as commonplace in the classroom as notebooks (the kind filled with paper, not keyboards). The result is that young children are more computer literate than ever, and often want to learn how to program devices or create their own apps long before they set foot in a computer science class. Fortunately, some new crowd-funded products are on the way to help kids learn to code.
Hackaball is a tiny computer encased in a durable plastic ball that lights up, makes sounds and even vibrates. Designed for kids age 6 to 10, it's paired with an iPad game app, but that's just the starting point. Kids use the app's building block interface to create their own apps -- or hack the existing games.The more they use the app, the more features they unlock. The actual ball itself appears to be pretty durable, and its makers says kids can bounce it, kick it and throw it around as much as they like. In addition to setting their imaginations free, it also helps teach them how hacking works by including broken games that need to be fixed.
Assembling the Hackaball is another teaching opportunity. The package includes the two halves of a hollow ball, a flexible outer casing, charging cable, smart plug and a tiny computer that consists of a gyro, accelerometer, LEDs, memory, vibration motor and a rechargeable battery. It's up to the child (perhaps with an assist from a parent) to put it together. Hackaball recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign by more than doubling its funding goal. While playing with a ball that you can program to make all kinds of funny noises and light it up is certainly fun, it's also a clever way of teaching children about programming and development.
If using an app to create games for an electronic ball is the first step in getting kids engaged in programming, actually building hardware in order to proceed in a Minecraft-like game is definitely the next step. Piper is a toolbox designed to inspire budding engineers. Before kids can even play the game, they need to assemble the laser cut plywood case. Each box has a 7-inch LCD display that you connect to the Raspberry Pi 2 computer (and case) via a cable, a battery pack, an 8GB SD card and a mouse. It also includes a plethora of electronics that range from switches to wires to sensors, so you can start building hardware right away (it's part of the game). Once the box is complete, kids can start playing the video game -- but not before.
The game component is similar to Minecraft, however you need to build hardware for your robot in real life because that's how you control him in the game. For example, one of the first tasks is to build his controller so you can navigate the game.
Piper began as a way to get school children in Ghana interested in programming, and has now evolved into a program that's provided hundred of kids in schools in the San Francisco Bay area, Mumbai and Atlanta with computer kits. Piper just ended its own runaway Kickstarter campaign, hitting its funding goal in less than three days and adding several stretch goals.
If building a box is not your thing, how about a little gardening? In an effort to inspire more kids to get involved in programming and teach basic concepts, a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the Department of Mechanical Engineering created a robotic garden. It has over 100 flowers that can be controlled via a Bluetooth-enabled device. Kids can click on a flower's location in the garden and (depending on its capabilities) it will open, close or change colors. While not a game per se, it still provides an engaging way to get students interested in programming and show them how distributed algorithms work.
These types of games and activities appear to be the future of teaching computer science. Exposing kids to them at an early age, and in an imaginative way, can only help inspire them to learn more about programming and engineering.
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