Bringing Coding for Kids Into the Real World: littleBits Code Kit

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Image: littleBits

Coding for kids is a huge industry right now, offering everything from programmable robots to making video games to even coding Minecraft mods. STEAM is such a priority in schools that companies seem to be coming out of the woodwork to provide more products and titles that fit the STEAM definition. And just when we think there isn’t more room in the kids coding space for more lessons and tools, something new comes out that makes you say, “Wow.” The littleBits Code Kit is a recent example.

Joining their extensive collection of products already available, the littleBits Code Kit—designed for kids in grades 3-8, but even adults will find it fun and educational—is kind of like if Scratch programming and Snap Circuits had a baby. You connect the circuit portions of the Code Kit together with magnets, which can never be connected wrong because of the magnets’ polarities. If two bits won’t stick together, flip one around. Combine several bits together to make the circuit you need. Then, through the littleBits Code Kit App, program the littleBits Code Block with whatever code you like. This combination of computer coding and hands-on builiding brings a digital element into the real world. This helps kids learn to code, but then takes it to the next level through the invention cycle, including prototyping, testing, modification, and more.

The Code Kit is amazing on its own, but what really makes it easy to use and ties it into educational spaces (such as classrooms, homeschools, and structured learning for families) are the included lessons and teacher tools. Much is included inside the app, but the videos are also available on the littleBits website, making it easy to figure out if this kit is a good fit for your family or group.

The littleBits folks really aimed this kit at everyone, but have specifically tried to include types of kids who don’t normally gravitate toward coding. The added craft and creative elements broaden the product’s appeal. They encourage kids to create programs that integrate into their interests, rather than the other way around. They have tried to provide something that teaches coding from a kid’s perspective.

Getting Started With littleBits Code Kit

I highly recommend starting with the orientation videos. This will show you what littleBits is about, and the basics of how to use it. The site has four helpful videos to get you started, including the Intro video, Meet Your Kit video, Your First Lesson video, and Invention Cycle video. They’re invaluable to get you oriented, and can help you figure out if the Code Kit is right for you. The Your First Lesson video is particularly useful to watch for a run through of the whole process, as well as what it looks like in a real classroom setting (the classroom in the video is not staged).

Teacher Tools

Should you use the teacher tools if you’re a parent? What if you don’t homeschool? Yes, all parents can help their kids make the most of this littleBits kit by looking through the included teacher tools. As parents, you are also teachers of your kids, and you were their first teacher, after all. The Teacher Tools section of the littleBits website includes an Implementation Checklist, Curriculum Guide, and Curricular Crosswalk, which are helpful to get oriented. The Implementation Checklist should be looked at before anything else. It helps you get set up before the kids get excited to dive in. The Curriculum Guide will guide you through deciding which lessons to do, and in what order, depending on your or your kids’ experience with coding. It also gives tips for how kids can learn through the kit most effectively. The Curricular Crosswalk document shows how the kit aligns to national education standards, if that’s useful to you.

The Kit

After looking through the teacher tools above, get oriented with your littleBits kit. It includes everything you need to do all of the suggested lessons, plus has enough bits to extend learning infinitely. Kids’ (and your) creativity are the only limitations. Additional bits can be purchased from the littleBits site if you find you just want extra of something, or want to try out their other bit offerings.

Along with the littleBits themselves, the kit includes an Educators Quick-Start Guide, which is a pretty basic overview for teachers and parents and likely won’t get looked at more than once, once you already know what you’re doing; an Inventors Quick-Start Guide, which is also a basic overview, but for the student programmers—it also likely won’t get looked at more than once, but can be helpful; a littleBits poster, with the invention cycle shown on one side and an overview of the littleBits bits on the other; and the Bit Index, which is a thicker, more useful guide to all of the bits in the set (it includes 16 bits and 30 accessories), how to use them, real world analogies, and mini-challenges based on that bit. The guide also includes a guide to the bits not included in this set (they make about 70 different bits, including an internet bit which, yes, you can connect to IFTTT), along with more information on the invention cycle. This is one reference you’ll return to frequently.

Beneath these reference materials are the bits themselves, organized in their own little compartments. There are bits that handle power, inputs, outputs, wires, accessories, plus the all-important code bit that gets programmed (via a Bluetooth dongle that attaches to your computer, where you’ll use the app). The power source is rechargeable, making it easy to use anywhere, but there is also a wall power plug in case the battery is dead. Everything is color-coded by what kind of bit it is, with blue as power, green as output, pink as input, and orange as wires.

The Hero Bits

The bits that stand out in the kit are the Code Bit and the LED Matrix Bit. The first one is the processor that handles the program once it’s been uploaded to it. Nothing would happen without this bit. The second one, though not integrated into every project, is the LED Matrix Bit, which can be a message board, animation studio, picture display, or anything else your imagination comes up with. Art-oriented students will definitely put the A in STEAM with this bit.

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The App

The littleBits Code Kit app is the backbone of using this kit. It is available for Mac, Windows, or Chromebook. You use it to program the code bit, but it also contains all of the steps and videos to all of the invention and tutorial lessons. It takes students (and teachers) through each step, with text, video, GIF-type animations, and more. In addition to working on all of the included lessons, students can open a blank canvas and create something new and wholly original, using the knowledge they gained in the lessons. Even though all of the projects are guided step-by-step, I do recommend to parents and teachers that they work through each lesson on their own first before letting their kids take a stab at it, especially for the younger kids. This way you’ll know what is involved and be able to answer any questions that come up.

The coding is a block-based environment, similar to Scratch programming, where kids drag blocks into place and perhaps change some of the settings. For some of the lessons, a few starter blocks are already in the programming area, which gets kids up and programming quickly. There is always time later to learn what each block does, if they experiment with modifying their designs. And there is plenty of room for perfecting and modifying designs. Just looking through the different kinds of blocks will likely inspire your kids to come up with new project ideas.

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The Lessons

No matter your previous programming experience, the littleBits Code Kit Lessons have a place for you to begin coding with kids. Everyone, though, no matter their background, should begin with the Introduction lesson called (what else?) “Hello World.” This gets you oriented in how to use the littleBits and the coding app. In the end, you’ll end up with the LED Matrix saying, “Hello World,” welcoming you to the kit.

After the intro lesson, it will be up to you whether to first go through the tutorials that cover programming concepts (Inputs and Outputs, Loops, Logic, Variables, and Functions) or to focus right away on the four included inventions (Ultimate Shootout, Hot Potato… of Doom!, Rockstar Guitar, and Tug of War). The invention lessons give more instant gratification, however, kids may understand what they are doing better if they cover all of the programming concepts first, where they learn about what each aspect of the programming blocks does. They will also come up with more program modification ideas that way, once they do finally tackle the inventions. My two cents.

Many of these lessons also include an artistic element that requires kids to fashion components from art supplies or things found around the house. This is an additional opportunity for invention and integrated STEAM learning. Music and animation are the foundations for some of the projects, as well, which keeps with the creative aspect of the kit. It’s craft time!

After each lesson, the app encourages kids to make modifications and improvements to the design, changing the program around to see what happens, and perhaps improve upon it, or make it more sophisticated. The app gives a few specific ideas, but kids can use their own ideas as well. The final lesson is the Change the World Arcade, which challenges students to design and implement a game that can make life easier for people in their community.

Even after these lessons, there is still plenty to do. If your kids don’t like coming up with ideas in a vacuum, they can access countless lessons uploaded by members of the educational community (such as these by the coworker of a friend of mine who works at NASA) and by other users. These community lessons range in difficulty from young kid to adult, so there’s something there for everyone, including parents, and there is plenty of room to grow.

Handouts and Bonus Material

To complete the helpful resources, the littleBits website has a section on Handouts and Bonus Material. Here, you can find the Debugging Checklist (perfect for figuring out what’s gone wrong if things aren’t working as they should), Code Master Workbook (ideal for use with the programming concepts lessons), Invention Log (where students can thoroughly plan and revise their projects), Feedback Chart (for giving feedback to siblings or classmates), LED Matrix Template (for students to pre-design graphics for their project), and the Code Certificate (to be awarded to students for completing lessons).

Conclusion

After talking with the makers of the littleBits Code Kit and trying it out myself and with my kids, I think the kit is an extremely useful and fun way to learn not only coding, but also things gain valuable experience on setting goals, teamwork, efficiency, improvement, creativity, and the aforementioned electronic circuits. By using code to create an end result, one that can be interacted with in the real world, kids learn that programming is merely a tool used to work toward an end result. It doesn’t have to just display something on a screen. It can also be the backbone of game scoring systems, musical instruments, and some tabletop games.

The littleBits Code Kit is a really entertaining, informative, and well-guided experience for kids, families, and classrooms. It brings the hardware and the software together almost seamlessly, in an easy-to-use educational package that, when oriented, can end up being used for self-directed learning, by even young students. It comes with enough pre-loaded content to last for weeks, and it is completely open-ended, so the learning doesn’t end when the content is exhausted. Kids can do anything they want with this, be it original programming or perfecting previous projects. It’s clear to me that the makers have really thought through the design of the software. It’s so tidy and complete that it’s obvious how much end-use testing they did. (They tested it in classrooms around the country.) Plus, there are regular prompts that encourage creativity, rather than just rote programming.

Though the price tag for the kit is a little high (at $299.95), there are educator discounts, including for homeschool educators. The kit is designed to work well with small groups of kids (1-3 students), and would be a justifiable expense for a large family, a homeschool co-op, or just a bunch of neighborhood kids who get together and make cool stuff. Thus, I think the littleBits Code Kit is a solid, quality purchase, and, other than the price tag, a no-brainer for an open-ended learning experience with limitless potential.

I encourage you to browse the links above to see if the littleBits Code Kit is right for you. It just came out on June 1, and it puts programming, prototyping, invention, and design into your kids’ hands. Like they say in their tagline: Build games, learn to code.

Note: I received a kit for review purposes, but all opinions are my own.

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