OK computer: The rise of coding in the toy industry

Aardvark Swift's marketing executive, Joey Relton discusses the UK's worrying skills shortage and how coding toys might just help provide the answer to this problem
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Teaching children how to code through play isn’t a new or innovative idea; however, in the last year alone we’ve seen these toys evolve from the specialist niche sector and break into the mainstream in a very real way, so what’s changed?

In short, we’re looking at a major skill shortage in the UK that needs addressing. A review published by Computerworld stated that in just a few years’ time we’ll be seeing a shortage of 300,000 digitally skilled workers in the London area alone.

While competitions such as Aardvark Swift’s Search For A Star aim to develop students’ programming abilities at later stages of education, more needed to be done at the younger years. To tackle this, the start of the September 2014 school year saw England become the first G20 country to add coding to its national curriculum.

Children as young as five are now learning the fundamentals of computer science, and while not every child is expected to take the path of a software engineer, this shift in digital literacy will be hugely beneficial as technology embeds itself further into our society.

So this is why we’re starting to see some of the bigger names get involved, as well as even more smaller toy developers. To capitalise on this surge of interest, companies are casting a wide net and developing toys for all ages, including children as young as three. While actual coding would be too difficult for children who can’t even read and write yet, the concepts of programming aren’t out of the question.

One high-street name to enter the area is Fisher-Price, who recently released their Think & Learn Code-A-Pillar to teach children about sequences, algorithms and debugging. Preschool children can configure segments of the robot caterpillar’s body to dictate it’s path, with each segment correlating to a specific movement; forward, left, right, or a momentarily pause.

The benefit to the consumer is a drastically lower price than the previous niche market. Before, you could be expected to pay upwards of £100, but Fisher Prices’ adorable Code-A-Pillar retails for just £35, making these toys far more accessible to the average household. 

Besides Fisher-Price, we’re seeing companies like Google, and even the BBC, get involved. Project Bloks for example, is an open hardware platform by Google, which involves a series of plastic blocks powered by Raspberry Pi designed specifically to teach kids how to code. Google itself isn’t planning on entering the toy market any time soon however, but simply plans to provide the basic platform for other developers and educators.

It’s still early days, but as Google’s Project Bloks begins to kick off and make developing new toys easier, combined with the success seen by Fisher-Price, we’re undoubtedly going to see more toys which teach children the ins-and-outs of programming pop up on the high-street.

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