Is Computer Coding the Legos of the Future?

How toys and technology can help cultivate a new generation of creative thinkers.

The experiment was deceptively simple. In 1999, researcher Sugata Mitra placed a computer in the side of a building in a Delhi-area slum in India.  Very few of the children there attended school. It's doubtful any of them had used a computer before, let alone navigated the Internet.

"What programming is about is a new form of creation."

Mitra turned on the computer without warning. There were no instructions. The sudden appearance of a new toy was irresistible — kids quickly swarmed to investigate it. Within a few hours, they had grasped the idea of a cursor and clicking. "Most of the slum children were able to use the computer to browse, play games, create documents, and paint pictures within a few days," Mitra and his coauthors later wrote in a paper describing his theory of minimally invasive education. "Even in the absence of any direct input, mere curiosity led groups of children to explore, which resulted in learning."

Unlike the Delhi slum children, most kids in the United States have some familiarity with computers. Eighty percent of U.S. households have access to the Internet, and virtually all schools do (although WiFi connectivity can be lacking). And yet the ability to adapt — like the Indian children creating new knowledge in the face of an open-ended challenge — is perhaps the most essential skill today's students need to master for the 21st-century economy.

Technology has been used to aid classroom learning for decades. But new ventures at the intersection of toys, education, and technology are embracing the minimalist approach. They emphasize self-learning and open-ended exploring. In the Oregon Trail computer game of the 1980s and '90s, students could be creative in how they stocked their caravans — but no matter their choices, the destination was always the same. Now, kids are making their own games, with their own rules. The goal is not to develop specific skills but improve the ability to think creatively.


"We're motivated by the fact that the world is changing more quickly than ever before," says Mitchel Resnick (no relation to me), head of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at MIT. "So our core question is: How can we help young people grow up as creative thinkers?"

One part of that answer is Scratch, a programing language that Resnick and his colleagues developed for elementary-school children that now has 3.3 million users. In Scratch, students have an array of basic computer coding commands at their disposal — such as "when the space bar is pressed, a object will move three steps to the right."

The Scratch interface. (Via MIT)

These simple commands can be combined in complex ways to create games or simulations. Scratch is also a social network in which kids can post their projects (anonymously — they aren't allowed to use their real names), explore their peers' creations, and adapt them — like an open-source code community would. On the comment thread of a Lord of the Rings-inspired Explore the Shire game, one user suggest that the game maker have Frodo dance. The game-maker, though first confused at how to do so, then coded a dancing Frodo into the game. Scratch is designed for ages 8 to 16, but anyone can sign up to use it.

There's a lot to be said about replacing more-traditional classroom skills (such as writing cursive) with coding lessons. Resnick says thinking of Scratch as just a means to get kids in computer science jobs later on is missing the larger point.

"The people who can bend the rules, or combine the rules, combine the elements in new and unexpected ways, they are the ones that tend to win."

"Scratch is part of a broader movement, helping kids learn to code," he says. "But I'd make an important distinction. For me what programming is about is a new form of creation. It's like writing. Why is it important to write? It's not because lots of people grow up to become professional writers. It's because when you learn to write, it helps you organize your thinking."

Fostering creativity in children in school is nothing new — but perhaps toys like finger paints and Legos are stuck in the analog age. Kano is a Lego set for the computer age.

Like Scratch, Kano allows kids to code games, but it also integrates a hardware component. Children assemble the components of the computer themselves — install the processor in a case, add a keyboard, build a speaker. Once connected, it's as much of a game as it is a lesson in computers: players "level up" by completing more and more complicated computer operations, eventually rising to code games like Pong and Snake.

Alex Klein, a former Daily Beast reporter, cofounded Kano and launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 with the goal of raising $100,000. After getting high-profile backing from Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, the company raised $1.5 million. "It accelerated things," Klein says of the sudden cash flow. "We went from a team of seven to 17."

Now, the London-based company is preparing to ship an initial run of 18,000 kits to more than 86 countries in July. The majority of those will go to private buyers, and around 500 will have been purchased for education. But Klein sees Kano as something bigger than education. He sees it as a way to serve a toy to the type of kid who to likes to take a hammer to old technology just to see what's going on inside.

"We are not an education company," Klein explains. "We make a simple, fun computer that you build yourself, and if you want to use it in a school, great. Ultimately we care about the experience of the young person, the beginner, who has always used computers, consumed them, but never had the chance to create them for themselves." Once a user assembles and activates their Kano, which takes takes a few minutes, they can start playing around in "kano blocks," which are coding challenges — from making videos to making modifications to games like pong (for instance increasing the speed of the ball; watch the video below for a demonstration).

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Kano comes at a time when technology from major manufacturers has become harder to modify for other uses — think of the iPhone, with its seamless case. A curious kid who might want to see how Apple integrates all of its hardware components in such a tight space is out of luck. This approach to consumer tech — to make it unhackable — is really thwarting future innovation.

"For the past three decades we've been estranged from our devices," says Klein. "What we've now given everyone, hopefully, is the ability to dive below the surface of the Angry Birds, and manipulate what goes on beneath." The side effect of that manipulation being a fundamental understanding of computer science.

"To know is to modify, to transform the object."

Perhaps the game that best exemplifies that ideal of exploration and manipulation is Minecraft, which could be described as a giant digital sandbox. It's enormously popular, with 100 million registered users worldwide. In Minecraft, players can make worlds out of blocks they mine from the environment. The game also has a rudimentary law of physics — water flows, objects fall to the ground. Minecraft is one of the games offered on the Kano set.

"What Minecraft managed to crack was just make it so simple and standing out of the way, with a simple world and a simple story, and putting people into it to discover new things," Klein says. "People have made computers in Minecraft, working calculators.... It's a beautiful thing."

Joel Levin was a second-grade teacher when he realized the educational benefits of Minecraft. He introduced the game into his classroom after seeing his 5-year-old daughter play around in the virtual world. "She was estimating how many trees she would have to chop down in order to get how many wooden planks in order to build her house," Levin says. Without much intervention, his daughter was understanding math concepts. When Levin brought the game into his classroom, it was a revelation, he says.

With Minecraft, he could augment a lesson on how the Romans built aqueducts with a challenge for kids to build such aqueducts in the game. "I was blown away," he says. "I have never seen the kids so excited to be in my classroom." He would give them building challenges, or artificially limit the resources in the game, to make the students have to coordinate and collaborate. His two-week lesson experiment turned into two months.

Levin now runs MinecraftEDU, a company that sells versions of the game specifically adapted for classroom lessons. Their programs have been sold to 2,400 schools, 70 percent of which are in the U.S.

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These games continue in the spirit of building blocks, Legos, and finger paints — toys that encourage creation. But aside from providing amusement, they do provide an education. Children learn by building.

The influential Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget theorized that children learn by actively constructing knowledge. "To know an object, to know an event, is not simply to look at it and make a mental copy or image of it," Piaget wrote. Rather, "to know is to modify, to transform the object, and to understand the process of this transformation, and as a consequence to understand the way the object is reconstructed."

In other words, to know something is to know how to manipulate it. And it is through manipulation (i.e. play or exploration) that knowledge is constructed. In playing with blocks, kids come to an implicit understanding of physics and gravity. By toying around with a computer in an Indian slum, children developed the knowledge of how to use a computer. In playing with code, kids build up a logic system, in which verbal commands and mathematics mesh to create desired outcomes.

"When I create a computer program, the program is a representation of my process," Resnick says. "It shows how the thing works. And by seeing this representation of how it works, I can make changes to it. I can understand process."

And when you understand how complex systems work, you can command them. "The people who can bend the rules, or combine the rules, combine the elements in new and unexpected ways, they are the ones that tend to win," Klein says.