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A Board Game That Teaches Your Kid the Basics of Computer Programming, Without a Computer

Brian Heater
Tech Columnist
February 19, 2014

In Robot Turtles, an upcoming board game designed to sneakily teach kids some programming fundamentals, the child is the programmer and you, the parent, are the computer. 

The kid is given a number of directional cards with small arrows to get her robotic reptile moving across the board. Once she picks one, you slide the turtle in that direction.

That participation is designed to bring parent and child together. And, in a very basic sense, the child is “writing code” through the commands and “running a program” when you execute those commands.

It’s a simple gameplay built around coding fundamentals, and like the best educational toys, it doesn’t actually feel like learning.

In fact, the game manages the fairly impressive feat of teaching kids some basic coding skills without using an actual computer.

On its face, Robot Turtles has all the signposts of a standard board game: cards, playing pieces, squares and a pretty straightforward goal of getting the turtle to the jewel. But beneath all that is a product designed to help kids develop some key coding skills — not surprisingly, really, once you learn that the game was created by a former Googler.

Dan Shapiro jumped ship at the software giant to create this “game for little programmers,” taking his project to Kickstarter and nabbing an impressive $631,230 of funding in the process. Puzzle-maker Thinkfun has since picked up the educational game and run with it, helping Shapiro to develop a final product that will begin shipping this summer.

It’s an extremely elementary approach to coding, of course, but it can provide some very basic concepts and problem solving that form the foundation for a future in computer programming. And once the player gets a firm grasp on turn-by-turn directions and command essentials, the difficulty level can be ramped up.

The game includes 36 obstacle tiles. These can be overcome with corresponding code cards. If you run into an ice wall, for example, you can melt it with a laser (at which point the parent flips it over to reveal a puddle).

Once the child has mastered that, the Function Frog card comes into play. The Function Frog can teach your child a lesson about subroutines — longer, repetitive functions that can perform a task. If the turtle runs into a problem, there’s a literal cartoon bug to “debug” the code. This lets the player take a step back and try again.

The gameplay was inspired by Logo, an educational programming language from the late ’60s, which centers around the movement of a small “turtle” cursor. Unlike that offering, however, Robot Turtles offers kids the rare ability to learn some basic programming fundamentals without having to stare at a computer screen all day.

The “programming for preschoolers” title is aimed at ages 3 to 8. You can preorder it right now for $25 — an offer that includes a number of bonus cards.

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