KIBO, a Screen-Free Coding Set for Young Kids | Tech Review

This learn-to-code robot with a passing resemblance to Mr. Potato Head can be built and re-built.
KIBO, the new coding kit from Kinderlab for kids ages 4–7, is the newest addition to screen-free, learn-to-code sets that teach computational thinking to our youngest students. With sensors that look like eyes and ears, plus a design that gives kids absolute control over the robot’s look and capabilities, KIBO resembles a robotic Mr. Potato Head. The most basic kit, the KIBO 10 ($299), includes the robot body and wheels, plus 10 basic direction and control blocks needed to get started writing programs. Additional blocks, sensors, and attachments, or modules, can be purchased separately or as part of a larger set. The ability to build and rebuild KIBO is one of its best features. In all, KIBO has three input sensors: an ear-shaped sensor that registers sound and corresponds with a “wait for clap” control block, an eye-shaped light sensor, and a telescope shaped proximity one. Two additional output modules are also available: the light, which can be programmed to glow white, blue, or red; and the microphone shaped sound recorder/player, with three buttons that can easily record messages and sound effects. Other attachments include a variety of center-mounted tables allowing students to decorate and build on the KIBO, an “expression set” ($20) which includes a small flagpole and white board for making signs, the “building brick extension set” ($20) for attaching LEGO bricks to KIBO, and the “marker extension set” ($35) with pieces that mount markers to the KIBO. If that sounds like a lot, it is. The largest KIBO set, the KIBO 21 kit ($499), comes in a large tub with more than 35 items. This makes sense, when you consider that every individual line of code is represented by physical items in the real world. KIBO’s solid wood code blocks are aesthetically similar to old-fashioned alphabet blocks. They fit together with dowels and holes, with code printed on all four sides so the chance of having the blocks put together incorrectly is low. Every block has a word and a picture to describe its function, as well as the barcode that communicates with the KIBO. Conditional (if/then) code and repeat blocks have space for a “parameter card” to be attached with Velcro, allowing for students to learn more advanced computational thinking skills beyond sequencing and logic. KIBO has a lot going for it. Children get to decide what they want it to do—and then not just code, but build the robot to act out those intentions. That’s quite powerful. But it has a few flaws. First, the infrared scanner, which programs the robot by scanning barcodes on each KIBO block in a completed program, is temperamental bordering on dysfunctional. It’s common for previous partial scans of the program to remain in the KIBO memory when the program is scanned again, or for a few blocks in the middle of the program to get duplicate scans. This results in the KIBO eventually running a program that is wholly different from the one created by the students. Second, Kinderlab provides few teaching resources that do not require additional purchases. All teaching materials, aside from a sample list of activities for the expression module, are separate purchases of $25 for individual curriculum guides, to $140 for the full set of teaching materials. Unlike companies such as littleBits and Wonder Workshop, Kinderlab does not provide a no forum for teachers working with KIBO to collaborate, problem-solve, crowdsource, and share their KIBO lessons. Still, KIBO has a lot of potential, early childhood teachers and librarians should keep an eye out for its evolution and what Kinderlab makes next.
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