Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Toys Programmers Play

_DSC0582Mention Lego, and what comes to mind is usually those colourful interlocking plastic bricks that kids play. There are also a great assortment of other parts like gears and figurines. But did you know Lego also sells a line of customisable robotic toys which are designed to teach programming?

It’s the Lego Mindstorms. I was surprised to see some promotional activity for Mindtorms at United Square recently. Undergraduate computing students at NUS learn with Lego Mindstorms. There, we have little primary school kids doing just about the same thing. They are really getting a head start with learning programming.

Lego Mindstorms are kits that comprise both hardware and software, allowing you to create programmable robots. There is a “CPU”, an intelligent brick computer, at the heart of the system that connects sensors and motors to allow the robot to interact with its environment. Lego parts from the Technics line are used to build the rest of the robot body, including its mechanical systems.

It’s a lovely way to get kids excited about learning programming. There are other fun programming toys too, like littleBits (based on Arduino) and Kanos (based on Raspberry Pi). But the Lego Mindstorms are more visual, have more physical interaction, and leverage on the modularity of Lego bricks to let you construct models of whatever it is you fancy. It’s fun to see how your creation move in and interact with the physical world.

Why are we so keen in getting kids interested in programming? You may have heard some proposals in recent years about introducing programming to children in primary or secondary school levels. It’s fundamentally about introducing Information and Communications Technology (ICT), and programming is certainly a key part of ICT.

Our children live in a world that requires language skills, application of math, and understanding of science, and so we have these as core learning when they begin formal education. ICT has far reaching impact on our daily lives, so why shouldn’t it also become one of the core skills?

ICT has made so many things in our world work like magic. Sometimes I find it difficult to explain to my children how some of these magic work. Mechanical things are, perhaps, easier to understand because we can see, hear and touch them. Many aspects of ICT that surround us are just virtual.

Lego Mindstorms are but just a step toward grasping one aspect of ICT. It’s cool to see it being introduced to children in a shopping centre. It’s a pity there aren’t many more similar sort of toys, particularly ones that are significantly cheaper.

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