A Review of Computational Toys and Kits for Young Children: Characteristics and Opportunities

Our group has paper titled “A Review of Computational Toys and Kits for Young Children” accepted to International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction (Link). This paper presents a review of computational toys and kits that enable young children (ages 7 years old and under) to explore computational ideas and practices. We collected 30 computational kits and performed a qualitative analysis of these kits. We examined the kits across four different perspectives: how they are designed, how they support children to explore computational concepts and practices, how they enable children to engage in a range of projects and activities, and how they enable children to explore other domains of knowledge.

In the first perspective, we analyzed the design features of physical, virtual, and hybrid kits. Physical kits are the kits whose components are all tangible, which generally consist of a physical robot, a set of coding blocks, and some supporting materials. Virtual kits are mobile or PC based applications without any tangible parts. Most virtual kits are in the form of video games, which ask children to create programs that accomplish certain tasks. Such applications typically include several virtual sprites, game or story scenes, and a set of graphical coding blocks. Hybrid kits are kits that consist of both tangible parts and virtual parts, which can be further categorized into kits with physical robot and graphical programming environment, and kits with virtual sprites and tangible programming environment.

In the second perspective, we use the computational thinking framework from Brennan and Resnick to examine what kinds of computational concepts and practices may be explored by children and how each kit supports that exploration. The following provides an overview of the major ways how computational concepts are supported:

  • Sequence: Creating a sequence of code to program the motion or other effects of physical robots or virtual sprites.

  • Loops: Repeatedly running a sequence of code by encapsulating these commands in repeat blocks Events: Pressing start/trigger buttons, or through the interaction between robots or sprites.

  • Parallelism: Controlling the motion of several sprites or robots simultaneously, or programming the motion, light, and sound effects of sprites at the same time.

  • Conditionals: Creating different conditions or events for children to make decisions and program the robots or sprites correspondingly through sensors or adventure maps.

  • Operators: Supporting children to do simple mathematical operations.

  • Data: Adjusting parameter values, such as the motion, rotation, and loop increments.

In third perspective, we reviewed its range of activities and possibilities based on what is claimed by a kit’s designers and manufacturers. The three major activities supported by the kits include: (1) Programming the motion, i.e. moving a robot or a sprite around a space; (2) Storytelling, namely developing stories around the motion or animations of a programmed robot or sprite; and (3) Art and craft activities, such as decorating a robot, attaching pens to the robot to draw its moving trajectories, or drawing sprites and scenes.

In the fourth perspective, we examined what other domains of knowledge and skills are supported in addition to computing. We primarily found three categories of other domains: narrative development, mathematical concepts and operations, and engineering concepts and skills.

Through our analysis, we see possibilities for expanding what children can explore, how they can code, what they can code, and who can code. researchers to expand the possibilities for children to create, explore, and play with computing:

  • Expanding what children can explore: Explore how computational concepts can be supported through other approaches in addition to existing ways; Support the less prevalent computational concepts and practices, such as Operators; Explore how to combine computational thinking with other domains, such as narrative development, socio-emotional development, life sciences, and physical principles of everyday life.

  • Expanding how children code: Explore other forms of programming, such as gesture and body movement; Explore how coding blocks could be designed in other forms, particularly beyond tiles or cubes.

  • Expanding what children can code: Embed computing in everyday materials and objects like paper, textiles, and other media to enable people to engage in computing in more familiar and natural ways; Explore other forms of interfaces that can enrich children’s interactions with computational kits, such as holographic projection, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR).

  • Expanding who can code: Build an online community can expand who children can learn with; Support children to remix, or build on others’ project; Broaden participation in computing to include historically underrepresented groups in STEM, such as women, minorities, and children with disabilities.

For more details about the design characteristics and implications, please refer to the paper. Overall, this study reveals the commonalities across existing kits and highlights ways for designers and researchers to expand the possibilities for children to create, explore, and play with computing.