Two months into the year, 2017 is holding its own against 2016. Our latest adventure? Launching a brand new Primo Toys office in Tokyo with some incredible friends and partners. An enterprise that will bring early years coding to curious young minds across Japan.
As we look to foreign lands for new friends and partners, our mission has never been clearer. We are here to build the best educational toy company in the world, one great toy at a time, starting with Cubetto, a toy that’s helping girls and boys aged three and up discover programming principles without screens. The message is resonating far and wide, with nods of recognition from the likes of Forbes and Fast Company, collaborations with leading educators, and fruitful design partnerships.
We set off on this ambitious mission four years ago. We’ve never changed our mind. Starting this month, helping to spread the message is a capable and motivated team of Japanese marketers, designers, parents and educators whose values reflect ours in each and every way.
Join them on a new dedicated website at www.primotoys.jp, and stay up to date by following our growing community on our Japanese Facebook page. Should you find yourself in Tokyo, be sure to stop by an Isetan department store, where Cubetto is being stocked.
This past Monday, leading programming educator Nanako Ishido joined our Founder and CEO Filippo Yacob for an illuminating discussion on the state of coding in early years in Japan. Below, the highlights of our conversation, and look out for the Japanese version on Ms Ishido’s educational website.
Ishido Nanako: ‘How does Cubetto compare with conventional programming toys or tools?
Filippo Yacob: ‘What makes Cubetto different from all other coding toys is that it doesn’t require screens of any kind. The primary reason for this is to provide a natural, age-appropriate play experience for children ages three to six. We’re big believers in kinaesthetic learning and wholeheartedly embrace hands on Montessori learning principles. When we experience the world around us through more than just sound, or the touch of a cold screen, we form stronger memories. The learning experience is more complete, richer, alive. Hiding all of Cubetto’s tech under a tactile material like wood makes the experience magical, especially when the child realises his physical blocks tell the robot how, and when to move. It’s an empowering surprise.
We often explored introducing a touch screen into the experience. Touch screens are, after all, an inevitability of modern life. But every time we tried, we simply found more reasons to keep screens out of this early learning equation. No screens means no isolation, keeping experiences inherently social and active. The breadth of objects within the Playset, the board, the blocks, the map, the robot, give children multiple object to think through and focus on as they play. Of course using tablets could help us record usage, but harvesting information from our users is not what we do or believe in, and introducing a third party device would be a compromise as far as early learning pedagogy is concerned.’
‘What kind of experiences do you want to provide through Cubetto?’
‘We’ve seen and supported amazing educators in over 90 countries, keen to implement new programs in their early years coding curriculum, but overall education doesn’t move very fast. Parents, on the other hand, can make fast decisions on investments for their children’s education. After our 2016 Kickstarter campaign, we realised more than 80% of our customers were actually parents looking to take their children’s coding education into their own hands. The majority of these parents don’t actually come from a technical background, but coding is clearly an important subject to them.
Parents want to spend time with their children, but they often don’t know how, and there lay an opportunity to accelerate the uptake of computational thinking in early learning. More than a tech, education or toy company, we could become a ‘relationship-building’ company, bringing parents and children together through play. The simplicity of what we created suddenly allows parents to spend more quality time with their children, without the burden of learning a new skill. Adults are learning to play again, and children are learning to think of the world around them in a different way.’
‘Cubetto can be used by children as young as three years old. Some Japanese people may think it’s not necessary to learn programming at such an early age. What’s your response to this opinion?’
‘The truth is, programming is important, but what is also important is to make sure we still allow children to be children: to use their imagination, play actively, and not get lost inside a screen. We think of what we do as providing a solution that’s the best of both worlds, by removing screens. Children tell stories, play actively, exchange ideas, and learn kinaesthetically with Cubetto. To quote the great Steve Jobs: ‘Everyone should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.’
What is probably the most important aspect of learning to program is learning to problem-solve. To break down big problems into smaller ones, and solve them using logic. This is a skill they learn with Cubetto, and something helpful in all aspects of life. I don’t judge or blame some parents for thinking programming is important, but how can anyone truly say learning to problem solve and think isn’t necessary? That is all programming is truly about. Ultimately, this is the language of computers, and it should be learned alongside reading and arithmetic, starting at pre-school level.’
‘You raised a record-breaking $1.6 million in 96 countries through crowdfunding. To what do you attribute this success?’
‘Coding is something that our children will need to learn no matter where they are, or where they come from. It’s a global movement. We didn’t start it, we just had the privilege of creating a good product at the right time that people understood and appreciate, because we can. We live in a time where computers and technology are more important than ever, and impact all aspects of life as we know it. We just played a small part in a big mission, shared by millions of people around the world. Our success is simply a reflection of the time.’
In the UK, compulsory programming education is already in place. What is the reaction on a broad societal level? In Japan, this is a topic still under discussion, and something we must afford increasing attention.’
‘In the UK, the government made coding for early years compulsory in 2013. The US has taken similar steps, as has France, and next year South Korea will follow suit. Generally speaking this scares the majority of people. We are asked to teach children something so important, but something that only 1% of 1% of people know how to do. How can we teach the new generations something we don’t know or understand? We wanted to tackle the issue at its base by providing a tool that was so simple, and so direct. Something teachers and parents could use and learn with alongside their children in classrooms and homes. I believe the global goal is to raise a generation of children who understand the creative power computers have. Cubetto takes care of the foundations, but we’re already starting to see examples of children becoming interested in the subject earlier on. A generation of problem-solvers and creative thinkers is what we need to bring the world together and rise to the challenges we face as humankind. If we make the subject easy for adults, our children will have a better chance at becoming interested.’
‘Are there many tools to teach programming available in the UK market?’
‘There are many good products, but none for the age group we want to cater to. We’re the only ones who don’t use screens, and who don’t need language. Computer science concepts are best understood when they are made tactile. We are tactile creatures. We evolved swinging from trees, building ever more complex structures with our hands in order to expand our reach and understanding of the physical world around us, improving our odds of survival. When you think about it, thing’s haven’t evolved much. We now swing from handrails in subways, and think of ways to make the physical world around us more comfortable and user friendly, so we may spend less time worrying about survival, and more time on creative endeavours. The world of tomorrow will have computing integrated in our chairs, our appliances, our sidewalks, elevators and trains. This view of the future can be empowering or dystopian. A world we don’t understand, or a world we have unprecedented creative control over.’
‘How do you expect Japan to respond to Cubetto?’
‘Japan is an interesting case. I think Cubetto will do well as far as solving a problem, but I think it can also do well because we’ve created great ‘playware’, not just a toy. We combine great stories, a unique and iconic character and an incredibly high-quality product with measurable learning experiences. Japan has a great tradition for creating, exporting, and responding to such things, from Nintendo to Sony. It may take a little longer for parents to be fully convinced of the importance of coding in early years, but once this happens, I have no doubt we will be able to serve our customers well in Japan, as we already do with customers all over the world.’