TL; DR: KinderLab Robotics is introducing computational concepts to 4- to 7-year-olds through a playful, screen-free approach to coding education. Children delight in bringing KIBO Robot Kits to life through sensors, modules, extensions, and other tools that foster both creativity and creative thinking. With a presence in 57 countries and counting, KinderLab Robotics aims to cultivate tech curiosity on a global scale.
Today’s adults stare at digital screens so intently and for so long that optometrists now refer to associated symptoms — such eye strain, headaches, neck and back pain, dry eyes, and blurred vision — as Computer Vision Syndrome.
But while most adults have only been addicted to their screens for the past decade, our youngest generations have been living in a digital world since birth. At the same time, children are curious about the tech around them, making early childhood the prime time to encourage an interest in coding, robotics, and engineering.
To bring STEAM (the “A” means arts) education into early childhood classrooms without introducing yet another PC, tablet, or smartphone, KinderLab Robotics created the KIBO Robot Kit, a hands-on, screen-free tool for teaching and integrating robotics and coding into the curriculum.
The novel tool was born out of research on innovative learning technologies to promote positive youth development conducted by Dr. Marina Umaschi Bers. In addition to Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at KinderLab Robotics, she is a professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and the Computer Science Department at Tufts University.
“Through her work leading the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, Dr. Bers developed KIBO,” said Christina Nawn, Director of Marketing at KinderLab Robotics. “She developed a couple of prototypes, and the kids were having great success, so she thought, ‘Maybe this should be a viable company.’”
She contacted a friend with a background in robotics, now-CEO Mitch Rosenberg, and, armed with a grant from the National Science Foundation, the pair formed KinderLab Robotics in 2014. The company is still going strong today, reaching 57 countries and offering a complete suite of teaching materials that help integrate STEAM elements into a wide range of study.
A Screen-Free, Cross-Disciplinary Way to Teach Computational Concepts
KIBO empowers 4- to 7-year-olds to build, program, and decorate their robots in a way that appeals to technically-minded children, those interested in arts and culture, and those who favor physical activity. The experience can set them on a path toward a multitude of careers in engineering, design, programming, art, and writing.
“We’re providing a way to get the kids off screens while still providing appropriate technology for 21st-century students,” Christina said. “It’s the new literacy — if you’re not comfortable with STEM and STEAM, you might face challenges.”
The mission at KinderLab Robotics is to get kids super excited about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math so they have the tools to pursue any career they choose. KIBO is very much a cross-disciplinary learning tool that can be used to unite a portfolio of educational areas while bringing any lesson to life.
For example, a class reading A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh could decorate KIBO as Piglet and program the robot to move its way through the Hundred Acre Wood to visit Pooh.
“There are many things to consider in order to make Piglet get to Winnie’s house,” Christina said. “How do you get from one point to the other? How do I build the coding sequence? Do I need to go forward two times, take a right, and maybe make KIBO spin around because you’re excited? Kids can even read passages from the story as part of the journey.”
Another example of how KIBO is used comes from a music teacher in California. She uses KIBO to teach lessons on gray whale migration along the West Coast. The children learn a song about the whale, create a map of the coast of California for scale, research whale behavior, decorate KIBO as a Papier-mâché whale, and code the whale to move up and down the map to recreate the migration.
A Flexible, Open Platform for Both Creativity and Critical Thinking
Christina said KIBO’s screen-free technology is one of its biggest differentiators, but the robotic kit’s various art platforms are a close second. Modules like the Stage Art Platform and Turntable Art Platform are what allow children to turn their robot in a gray whale or Piglet.
“It’s not for us to dictate what KIBO should be — it’s up to the young learner to dictate what it can be,” she said. “So many other coding toys are in a shape which can’t be modified, so the child can’t make them into what they need or want them to be. We allow children to be creative.”
A Massachusetts-based educator, for example, uses KIBO’s art platforms to help her second- and third-graders learn about the formation and composition of clouds. The children work in sets of two, and each pair is tasked with transforming KIBO into a different kind of cloud.
One team created a white, fluffy cloud that they programmed to move leisurely across the floor. Another decorated a thunder cloud and coded it to shake and emit white light on a repeated loop. The third pair decorated KIBO as a hurricane that was then programmed to spin rapidly.
“Using KIBO is a way for kids to really drive home what they’ve learned, to turn their knowledge into something actionable, and help them retain information a better,” Christina said. “It also helps demonstrate what they’ve learned to parents and teachers. It’s amazing what they can do with KIBO with their creativity and perseverance!”
Bring KIBO to Life with Sensors, Modules, and Extensions
KinderLab Robotics serves a broad customer base, 25% of which are direct consumers. During the holidays, Christina said the company sells a fair number of kits to parents and grandparents looking to gift an educational toy that their loved one won’t throw away in a matter of weeks.
The majority of KinderLab Robotics’ business comes from educational institutions, including public schools, private schools, preschools, libraries, and museums. Many states now have a framework for computer science education, starting at PreK. “We work with anyone — including teachers, principals, school board members, STEM coordinators, curriculum directors — who can see the value this type of technology can provide their students,” Christina said.
Considering the full range of add-ons available for KIBO, including sensors, modules, and extensions, it’s easy to see how KinderLab Robotics can serve such a diverse customer base. The company offers four standard robot kits: KIBO 10, an introduction to programming and motion; KIBO 15, which adds art, sensors, and outputs; KIBO 18, which includes advanced sensors and conditionals; and KIBO 21, the most complete kit, offering visual and audio narratives.
Two models — KIBO 18 and KIBO 21 — are also available as comprehensive classroom packages that include curriculum materials. To supplement all packages, the company offers programming blocks, modules, additional curriculum, and teacher materials à la carte.
These add-ons bring KIBO to life in many ways. Sensors are available to detect light, sound, and distance; while modules enhance KIBO through art platforms, sound recording and playback, and motors. Designed to allow for flexibility, this vast selection of extension sets ensure that boredom never strikes.
Introducing the Advanced Coding Extension Set
Christina told us that KIBO’s à la carte options are developed based on user feedback and research to ensure a continually improving product.
The company’s newest add-on, the Advanced Coding Extension Set, unlocks new coding options to allow kids to make their own programming blocks, create games, and explore complex coding concepts. Users who purchased their robot before June 2019 will require a free firmware update to use the set.
“The advanced coding set was designed to offer more enhanced coding and conditionals for children with experience with KIBO,” Christina said. “So while we can’t constantly modify the KIBO, we keep extending the fun.”