I am of the generation that learned—at the luckiest—to start programming in late middle school. Most high schools in the early 2000s that even had computer programming had one course, or maybe two if there was a passionate teacher willing to fight for resources. So I know that I will continue to be caught off guard by how early basic programming concepts can be introduced to kids, both in and out of the classroom. After spending time this summer with third graders who could build robots and design video games, I have made an effort to keep a purposely open mind.

That’s why when I was contacted by the people at KinderLab Robotics about getting to know their new robot designed for 4–7 year olds, I decided to give it a try. I was somewhat familiar with the landscape of other coding-based toys, having picked out the Code-A-Piller for my three- and five-year-old nieces last Christmas. I spoke to some friends, scheduled some time with a kindergartner, and got a KIBO set on loan.

When I first opened the box, I was surprised by how plain the appearance was. Compared to the Code-A-Piller, and really compared to any aisle in your average toy store, the simple, brown body didn’t look like a kid’s toy at all. But a conversation with KinderLab co-founder Dr. Marina Umaschi Bers revealed that the appearance was intentional. Dr. Bers is a professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She is hardly a newcomer to the youth-coding landscape, having been involved in the development of the extremely popular, graphics-based coding language ScratchJr. She has also published books, articles, and given talks about the importance of incorporating unstructured play into other childhood arenas.

When viewed in the context of basement forts and backyard battlegrounds, starting with a blank slate for the KIBO made perfect sense. Dr. Bers explained that subverting the intended use of objects is a fundamental aspect of play for kids of this age group. Starting with a simple appearance not only allows for individual personalization, but it opens the door to greater interpretation on the kids’ behalf for the many ways any particular piece can and should be used. When that theory is translated into a physical product, it means opening a box that contains an extremely blank slate. The main body of the robot has slots for wheels, motors, and a suite of interchangeable sensors. The setup provides huge potential for adaptation, but it also made the learning curve to get started somewhat steep.

Having played with my nieces and their Code-A-Piller, I knew that warnings against forcing the wheels to turn faster than the motor intends meant that supervision and possible intervention would be necessary for the younger end of the target audience. My nieces would lean on their toy, push it, knock it over, and see how far it could go with things piled on its back. Given the sophistication and cost of a KIBO, I was not willing to be quite so laissez-faire.

The five-year-old tester I recruited to try the KIBO started as any kindergartner might – dumping out the box and asking what every single piece did before setting it aside and moving on to ask if she could draw on the robot with the provided marker. We settled on having her draw on the kit’s dry-erase board while I explained how the motors, wheels, and sensors worked. Unlike the Code-A-Piller – which has body pieces with predefined motion commands that just snap in place and create an increasingly long critter of commands – KIBO comes with a series of command blocks that are separate from the robot itself. The wooden blocks have simple movement options (forward, backward, shake, spin, etc.), but they also have more complex options like “If,” “Repeat,” and “Wait for.” (Note: Not all command blocks are included in all versions of the kit).

A brand-new robot at the ready, but first a moment to stop and draw. Credit: Amanda Baker

I was surprised by how quickly a kindergartner could latch on to the conditional commands, getting excited about making the robot wait for a clap before spinning and playing back the recording of her shouting her own name. The KIBO commands are on big, kid-friendly blocks that push together to make a visual chain and each have a barcode. No screens, apps, or smartphones are necessary. Assembling the blocks was fun, and even her three-year-old brother could pick out the meaning of the motion commands. But a lot of time was spent digging the small, Velcro-on customizations from under the couch or under her brother.

While the barcode scanner does allow for the quick input of a long chain of commands – along with satisfying boops – the physical task of scanning quickly became frustrating. This was as true for the kindergartner as it was for the group of three adult engineers who ended up playing with the KIBO when they heard I had a programmable robot at the house on loan. The kindergartner had a hard time holding the robot steady enough and handed it over saying, “That can be your job. I don’t like that part.” The engineers really wanted to be able to slide the blocks along the floor for a continuous scan, but never could quite get it to line up. They also ended up picking up the robot and scanning each block individually. (**Note: The blocks have since been redesigned to have a much larger barcode.)

Once the program was scanned in, the KIBO did have its chance to shine. The sensors could listen for claps, look for light, and check the distance to surrounding objects. The robot would move, stop, sing, play back recordings, light up, and keep itself from hitting a wall. The kindergartner was so excited when her giant chain of commands worked that she danced around the robot cheering. She was also interested in just testing the sensors themselves. With a simple command to turn on a bulb when it sensed light, she checked her whole living room – pointed at the lamp, under the couch, behind her back – to see how much light was enough.

As someone who already has some programming experience, the coding elements of the kit made sense. But both the kids and parents wished that the color-coding or the directions were more explicit about which things could (or must) be used together. Knowing that an “If” loop needs to be closed may not be intuitive to most folks, and leaving it open did not produce a clear, actionable error message from the robot. The color coding helped group similar functions, but it wasn’t clear enough to keep the kindergartner from wanting to Velcro “3” onto the “If” block instead of the “Repeat” block.

Creating a block-based program to wait for a clap, turn on a series of three lights, repeat two recorded sounds three times, move backwards, shake, turn right, spin, turn left, and then move forward. Credit: Amanda Baker

When it came to clean-up, the precise nature of the pieces seemed to mismatch the cleaning-up style of its target audience. Carefully repacking motors in foam fell to the adults with the patience and the appreciation of the expense involved. And while playing with an individual kid was very rewarding, the expense may make this more suited for classrooms than households. Buying the Code-A-Piller for my nieces had been a notable expense – even as a shared gift between the two of them for $60 made me hesitate. The KIBO kits range from $229-$529. I can understand the cost, with the sophistication of the sensors and the huge potential for expanded learning that comes from the adaptable design. But the cost will put it out of reach for many. Like the kid-friendly blocks and the parent-necessary care for electronics, there may be a mismatch that keeps people from truly setting kids free for the desired unstructured play. Perhaps the kids at the older end of the target audience, or those who habitually count their LEGO before putting them away, can take the necessary care.

Overall I was impressed by the adaptability and the chance to create epic chains of nested and repeating conditional commands, and I was sad to send it back. When I asked the kindergartner about her favorite part, she launched into a giggling and dramatic retelling of how a poorly timed recording of her brother’s name made the robot repeatedly – and incorrectly – shout his name throughout the house. The kids-coding landscape is only going to keep expanding, and everything from cheap, plug-and-play options with limited functionality to pricier machines with sophisticated sensors and open-ended coding inputs will play a role. KIBO is trying to occupy the difficult middle ground of genuine coding concepts, reliable and adaptable electronics, and a novice audience whose willingness to explore with reckless abandon is both its greatest asset and hardest design challenge. And trying to do so without involving the use of a screen is an effort a lot of parents and teachers can get behind.

**KinderLab Robotics provided a copy of the KIBO 21 Robot Kit ($499) with Building Brick Extension Set ($30), which was returned upon completion of the trial period.**