Can a pair of robots really teach your kids how to code?
A couple weeks ago, a startup called Wonder Workshop reached out to me with a tempting offer: They had noticed from social media posts that I have kids, so they offered to send me one of their robot kits to test out.
The pitch was that these robots will teach my kids the fundamentals of software programming.
I was happy to oblige, not because I necessarily want my kids to learn how to code — although it’s fine if they want to! — but because I have an eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. The age gap and their different personalities make it really hard to find things to keep both of them engaged. My daughter is in the easily jaded pre-teen phase, while my son is a ball of energy and almost never stops moving unless he’s watching his sister play Minecraft. (They both agree on that.)
But then Thanksgiving rolled around, family came to visit, and I got distracted. Until last night — the end of a very long five-day weekend for the kids, when all other possible entertainment options had been exhausted. So I opened the box, which contained a bunch of smaller boxes with the following:
- A large robot, which we soon found out was named Dash (it’s on the right in the picture above)
- A smaller robot named Dot (left).
- A bunch of accessories you can attach to the robots.
- An iPad mini. (Not included.)
We spread everything out on the floor and then waited. Nothing happened until we turned the iPad on, at which point both robots lit up and said “Hi” in these little robotic voices. Pretty cool.
The iPad came with the four apps you use to learn about and control the robots. The Go app offers a basic introduction with some controls to let you move Dash (the mobile robot), and make both robots scream like elephants, bark like dogs, and so on.
My daughter skipped ahead to the Path app, which lets you build simple tasks for Dash to complete — you design a path around the floor, and insert commands for things like “peeling out,” changing the light colour, and honking the horn. My son later had about a half hour of fun playing with that one by himself, so it’s definitely suitable for a four-year-old. They also both enjoyed the Xylo app, which lets you program the robot to play simple tunes on a Xylophone.
My daughter hit the wall with the Blockly app, which is where the actual programming really kicks in. You’re supposed to be able to string together a wide array of commands, but it’s not easy for an eight-year-old to figure out just by looking at the screen. We’ll have to sit down and work on it together.
The real kicker? This morning as we were getting back into the Monday morning school rush, both kids begged me to take out the robots and start playing with them again. That’s pretty unusual, and a sign that this probably wouldn’t be one of those Christmas gifts that rusts away in the closet after the holidays are over.
Some other things to know:
- Wonder Workshop was originally known as Play-i, and it was crowdfunded, so the first robots are going out to the people who already paid. But if you’re interested, the company tells me they’re supposed to be on sale soon through the Wonder Workshop site and Amazon. You can also pre-order for delivery in January.
- The smaller robot, Dot, can’t move and doesn’t seem to have much point. It makes noises, and you can press a glowing button on its top to get Dash to start completing a program, but it seems mainly like a way to distract a second kid while the first kid plays with the real robot, Dash. If you buy Dash alone, it will cost $US199 ($US168 if you pre-order now for January). The extra $US69 you’d spend to own Dot along with Dash doesn’t seem worth it.
- The full collection with accessories costs $US365 ($US309 if you preorder for January), but the accessories are a mixed bag. Some of them, like bunny ears and a bulldozer-like thing to push small objects out of the way, are marginal at best. The mobile phone mount, though, could be fun — you could turn the camera on and have Dash roam around the house taking videos.
- If you’re an Apple person, you’ll need an iPad 3, Air, or Mini. You can’t download the apps on the iPhone. For Android, it works with various Nexus and Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets.
So will the Wonder Workshop robots really teach your kids to code? Hard to say, but they’re certainly more engaging than a lot of other gadgets you could buy, and they’re also kind of cute to have around. Although that elephant noise is going to get old.