Toys and coding – how new toys turn coding into a playful activity
The market for ‘coding-toys’ is booming, and big actors like Sesame Workshop and LEGO have recently launched new products in the category. At Funday Factory, we are thrilled about the focus on and interest in coding-toys. In our opinion, coding-toys offer engaging play experiences that intrigue children on so many different levels - when done right that is. Besides using digital features that appeal to most children, coding-toys challenge the child’s technological and logical competencies in a playful way.
But why the sudden interest for coding? And what do coding-toys bring to the table? In this article, we embrace the rising popularity by zooming in on how coding and toys merge and look at how the new products turn coding into a playful activity. For this purpose, we’ve teamed up with Rune Fogh, expert in Interactive Modular Playware and Play Dynamics, volunteer at the Danish Union Coding Pirates and part of the LEGO Boost development team.
What is coding – and what is a coding-toy?
Most people engage in coding scenarios on an everyday basis - often without even knowing it. When starting the microwave or coding the TV to record a specific show, we make use of basic coding skills.
We meet coding everywhere and recent years’ focus on coding as a means to achieve both entertainment and learning builds on an understanding of coding being for everyone. A major reason for this perception has to do with the toy industry and its ability to develop play experiences that use coding.
“To code something is to give instructions. The exciting aspect to me is the process you experience up to the point where you realize which task you want to complete and how. This realisation is achieved through a high level of reflection and understanding of your possibilities. Afterwards, you have to plan the actions you want to happen while defining and understanding your problem and the logics behind it. In many cases, you divide the problem into smaller parts, and through this practice you gain an understanding of advanced problem solution.”Rune Fogh
Surprisingly, we find coding-toys for almost all age-groups, all the way down to 3 years and up to late teens. For the youngest age-group, two of the most eye catching products at the moment are the ‘Code & Go Robot Mouse’ from Learning Resources INC. and the 'Code-a-pillar’ from Fisher-Price. The shared aspect of these two products is that it’s all about movement and creating a chain of actions to solve a task based on either mazes or distances. In both cases, the kids are presented with a task that is solved by coding a chain of actions into the toy and then figuring out if the set of actions complete the task - like going from A to B or finding the cheese in the maze.
Products for older kids consist of similar elements, but have a greater variety in tasks, functions and possibilities. Products like LEGO Boost and Osmo present the users with various movement-tasks too, but the interfaces and hardware are expanded with scanners, sensors, sound, voice recognition and alike. The tasks are quite tangible, but the more advanced they get, the more aspects of coding the kids will learn. The advanced products for older kids excel by incorporating tablets and apps into the activities expanding the affordances of the products and making quite advanced tasks and challenges more tangible.
Coding-toys vary in challenge and complexity depending on the age group. What is common for all these products though are the core values of the play activities offered by the toy: Making coding a tool for play, and not the playing activity in itself.
The coding aspect of a coding-toy is found in what challenges, goals and tasks the toy presents the user with during play. The toy becomes the agent to complete the challenges at hand and to find solutions for the tasks presented. Coding, as a skill, becomes the tool with which the user experiments with possible solutions, and through this activity learns how the systems work and how different action-chains can create solutions.
All coding-toys consist of an actual to with a variety of functions and a big set of activities to face and play with.
The main challenge for coding-toys is keeping the play running
Coding-toys are on the rise, and we can easily claim that this type of toys will fill out a major role in the future of play. Meanwhile, the technological possibilities that lie behind coding-toys can just as easily become a restriction to the play experience.
According to an article from Forbes, the novelty of coding-toys tends to wear off quickly. Many kids either find that the toy lacks instructions on how to use the toy or they get through the tasks presented by the toy extremely quick and lack the imagination to come up with new challenges on their own.
A way to address this issue is to incorporate open ended play strategies in the toys which many of the new products seem to aim at doing. In short, ‘open ended play’ means that the toy doesn’t limit itself to a fixed set of activities or playing-styles, but aims at offering infinite possibilities for play, besides the more tangible aspects of the toy.
Among the products we’ve come across, the ones who seem to succeed with open ended play aspects are the ones which manage to integrate tablets, apps and more digital aspects into the experience - as opposed to toys where the coding feature is limited to the toy itself. The digital add-on of the coding-toys offers expansions of the tasks delivered and makes it possible for the manufacturers to create new tasks for physical toys already bought.
Thoughts on the future and the challenges ahead
As of now, a bright future for coding-toys might seem evident, and we expect that the field will expand a lot in coming years. Naturally, an expansion is never without challenges: We are certain that one of the biggest design challenges in the development of new coding-toys is to design open-ended play instead of closed activities. It is vital for the actors in the industry to reflect on this challenge and to be sure of what actual play-activity the toys are meant to facilitate instead of making coding the singular goal of their products.
Even though coding can play an innovative and important part of a toy product, we still find that the greatest importance of a coding-toy is to offer play as the main goal. A great coding-toy does not wish to teach children coding, but aims at giving the child a playful time by turning different aspects of coding into play. Learning should never become the sole purpose of a coding-toy, but remain as a method or a tool to facilitate play.