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Ann Gadzikowski

Ann Gadzikowski

Toys or Tools? Choosing an Educational Robot for Your Early Childhood Classroom

You don’t need a robot to teach robotics to young children. As described in my recent book Robotics for Young Children: STEM Activities and Simple Coding (Redleaf Press) teachers can use ordinary classroom materials like blocks, magnets, and clay to introduce children to foundational engineering, computer science, and physics concepts. But if your classroom budget includes funding for new STEM materials or tech devices, how should you spend it? There are so many new products on the market, it’s difficult to know which ones are best. And no one wants to spend good money on a robot that will sit on a shelf because it’s too difficult to use or breaks easily.

Intentional Teaching with Robots

Good teachers know that the decision to purchase a classroom robot should be intentional and informed. To be intentional means to be purposeful and reflective. Intentional teachers make decisions based on our goals for children’s learning and our understanding of child development. When shopping for an educational robot, visit the website of the manufacturer and read the story behind the development of the robotic device. Look for evidence that the manufacturer has created and tested the device based on research that is specific to how young children learn.

In Robotics for Young Children: STEM Activities and Simple Coding, I recommend several educational robots that are appropriate for use with young children. For example, the Primo Cubetto robot is a small cube on wheels with a friendly face. Children learn to program the robot and make it move by placing a sequence of colorful blocks on a control board. While the design of Cubetto is playful and appealing to children, it is not a toy. It is a tool for learning that supports intentional teaching practices.

Photo: Redleaf Press

Toys v Tools

The differences between toys and tools can best be illustrated by comparing Cubetto to a robotic device typically sold in ‘big box’ toy stores, such as a remote-controlled robotic dinosaur. There are a number of these on the market right now and a quick online search for ‘robotic dinosaur toy’ will show you some popular examples. These robotic dinosaurs are toys intended for play at home. While it’s certainly possible that children will learn something about mechanical engineering through their experiences playing with a robotic dinosaur (especially if the toy breaks and the child examines the parts inside the shell of the device), these robots have not been designed with learning in mind. They are toys, not tools for intentional teaching.

When teachers and parents engage with children to program educational robots, children can become active creators, problem-solvers, and complex thinkers

Cubetto, on the other hand, is a tool. Children certainly enjoy playing with Cubetto and they may even have more fun with Cubetto than with a robotic dinosaur. But what makes Cubetto a tool rather than a toy is the fact that the Cubetto robot has been carefully designed to support a learning experience that teaches young children computational thinking. Children program Cubetto by engaging in a problem-solving process in which they become active and empowered decision-makers.

Opportunities for Creativity

While a robotic dinosaur toy comes with a remote-control device that allows the child to control the actions of the robot, the options for movement are usually limited to only a forward motion. There is little creativity involved in manipulating the binary GO and STOP controls. The programming of the Cubetto robot, however, includes many different variables. To begin, the core programming blocks include forward, turn right, and turn left. Even among these three core commands there are many diverse opportunities for developing creative and complex thinking as children build patterns and sequences to program the robot. The Cubetto Playset also includes more complex commands that allow teachers to scaffold the learning process and create differentiated learning experiences. For example, the Cubetto set includes a function block with a corresponding function line on the control board. Children can learn to create more efficient and more elegant code using the function block. Unlike the dinosaur toy, with its simple binary controls, the opportunities for children to actively create their own Cubetto programs are limitless.

Photo of Ann Gadzikowski by David E Linsell

Reflection Requires Time

Intentional teaching involves reflection. Teachers observe children and engage in reflection as a means for planning next steps in the learning process. Children reflect, too. They ask questions and experiment, engaging in a hands-on, tangible learning experience. Reflection requires time, which is why one of my favorite features of the Cubetto robot is the speed of travel. Cubetto moves very slowly. The slow speed of travel supports intentional teaching and reflection because there is time for children to observe and talk about the movements of the robot while it is still performing its program. In contrast, robotic toys such as remote-controlled dinos, cars, or drones, tend to move very quickly. There’s no time to analyse the movements and visualise where the device is going. Cubetto, on the other hand, allows children to use spatial reasoning and visualisation to anticipate the robot’s movements and compare them to the pattern of blocks on the control board.

In a nutshell – when children play with robotic toys they are passive consumers of a product. When teachers and parents engage with children to program educational robots, tools for learning, children can become active creators, problem-solvers, and complex thinkers.

Ann Gadzikowski is the author of Robotics for Young Children: STEM Activities and Simple Coding, Challenging Exceptionally Bright Children in Early Childhood Classrooms, Story Dictation, and Creating a Beautiful Mess – winner of the 2015 National Parenting Publications Awards. She has more than 25 years of experience as a teacher and director of early childhood programs.

Established in 1973, Redleaf Press is a leading nonprofit publisher of exceptional curriculum, management, and business resources for early childhood professionals. Follow the company on Twitter and Facebook.

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