Meet Cubetto: Programming for Preschoolers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cubetto

Cubetto is the latest entry in the trend of games and toys designed to teach programming concepts to young kids, and it’s a good one. Pick commands to make Cubetto turn right or left or move forward … all without a screen or words!

Cubetto is a project by Primo Toys, and it’s currently on Kickstarter.  The project launched last week and has already more than tripled its funding goal. The early bird pledge levels are all sold out, so the current pledge if you want a Cubetto for yourself is $195 (or $245 if you want the expansion pack, which includes 4 additional maps and story books).

New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.

Cubetto
Ready to try Cubetto! Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Here’s what’s in the box:

  • Cubetto robot
  • board for programming
  • 16 programming blocks
  • 2 World Maps (1 meter x 1 meter)
  • Story Book
Cubetto
Cubetto has two wheels and two small bumps to help it glide. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Cubetto looks like a little wooden box, with a smiley face on one side and an arrow on the top indicating its direction. It’s powered by 3 AA batteries, and has an on/off switch on the bottom. Two large wheels are embedded mostly inside the body; these, combined with the small plastic bumps on the front and back, allow Cubetto to roll around and turn left and right.

Cubetto
The board has 12 slots for the programming blocks, plus 4 slots for a function. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The board is a large panel–plastic on underside with a wooden top–also powered by 3 AA batteries. The face of the board has 16 slots. and a large blue button. The first 12 slots are arranged in a back-and-forth line (ending with the button), and the last 4 slots are in a line in a rectangle. Each slot has a small LED below it that lights up when you put the blocks in.

To program, you use the “blocks”–flat plastic pieces with a small knob on the bottom. These knobs fit into the slots on the board, oriented in the right direction. The shapes of the blocks also match the direction of movement. The green pieces are for “move forward” and point in the direction of the program. Red and yellow pieces turn left and right, and are curved with a point to either side. Finally, the blue “echo” block will run whatever sequence is placed in the rectangle at the bottom of the board.

The map is a large paper mat with colorful graphics and coordinates marked along the edges. There are a few landmarks, like an oak tree and a boat and mountains, which are referenced in the storybook. I’m not sure if the final product will also be paper, but mine had some creases where it was folded. The creases didn’t seem to interfere with Cubetto’s movement, though. Another map included with my sample unit had an outer space theme; currently the project has hit a stretch goal to include a second map with each set, and there are additional maps that will be included in the expansion packs.

Cubetto
My toddler adds some programming blocks to the panel. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The Story Book is a little booklet that has a story and some discussion questions on each spread, plus an instruction for Cubetto. The story is a little about Cubetto as a character and a little about programming and robots. A sample instruction is “Once aboard the boat sail to the mountains avoiding the ‘Y’ square.”

To program Cubetto, you simply place the blocks into the board and then hit the button to activate it. Cubetto will play out the instructions, and the LEDs will blink to indicate which block is currently being used. Once the program is finished, Cubetto stops and plays a little “finished” sound. Cubetto isn’t very fast–you can see it crawling around in the video below–and it pauses briefly between each instruction. That gives kids time to see what the robot is doing and also look at the board, matching up the program with the results.

I did notice that my loaner unit wasn’t perfectly calibrated: when turning right, it was turning not-quite-90 degrees, so if your program included several right turns, it would eventually be off and need to be repositioned. I’m not sure yet if there’s an easy way to recalibrate. (UPDATE: Primo Toys has a YouTube video explaining how to adjust the rotation on the Cubetto; it’s a little involved, though.)

Cubetto reminds me a lot of Robot Turtles, a game funded by Kickstarter several years ago that had a similar goal: teach programming to young kids. Like Cubetto, Robot Turtles has its roots in Logo and allows for 90-degree turns and fairly simple sequential programs. But, of course, Cubetto is an actual robot that moves around, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Certainly it’s pretty exciting for kids to see the robot moving on its own (rather than an adult moving a turtle on a board), and one nice thing is that Cubetto won’t accidentally misread an instruction and play out the program incorrectly. The downside is that it’s more expensive than a board game and uses batteries. Cubetto also doesn’t really require parental involvement as much, particularly for older kids, but that can make it a great self-learning tool.

Cubetto also reminds me a little of Dash, the robot from Wonder Workshop, but on a simpler level. Dash has more capabilities, but also requires an iPad and reading, so it’s more appropriate for older kids. Cubetto is simpler and friendlier for small kids.

There are some more programming blocks in the works, too. The latest stretch goal adds “Random, Negate, and Backward” to the mix, and there are more plans to expand Cubetto’s capabilities. I think it still won’t do everything Dash does (and doesn’t intend to) but that does allow some room for growth, which is very cool.

To find out more about Cubetto or make a pledge, visit the Cubetto Kickstarter page!

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