Programming is a pursuit that rewards creativity and problem solving, but let’s be honest — it’s not exciting or glamorous. When it comes to getting young people interested in computer science, that can be a problem.
Although a countless number devices and services we interact with on a daily basis are dependent on the achievements of enterprising engineers and software developers, it’s challenging to communicate that reality to kids. That’s the purpose behind LittleBits’ newest product, the Code Kit.
LittleBits offers various “kits,” which house building blocks fitted with circuits boards, buttons, switches, wires, and other goodies that interlock magnetically. With LittleBits, inventors of all ages can build gadgets ranging from musical instruments and self-driving vehicles to a variety of internet-connected smart home hacks.
Unlike the company’s previous products, however, the Code Kit incorporates a simple-to-use visual programming language based on Google’s Blockly — it’s perfectly suited for children learning to code for the first time.
Easy to learn, hard to master
This particular kit is intended for kids in grades 3-8, and was developed with the help of 29 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) educators. LittleBits says the Code Kit was designed specifically for classroom learning, and it shows. Everything is extremely easy to set up, but challenging to master.
Opening up the Code Kit, you’re presented with 16 color-coded bits organized into easy-to-understand categories. Blue bits represent your power source, pink bits are inputs (like buttons and switches), orange bits are wires and connectors, and green bits are outputs (like LED displays and speakers). The Code Kit is also the first LittleBits product to come with a rechargeable battery packed in, which is sure to please teachers constantly drying up their school’s supply of 9-volts.
The wireless setup makes the Code Kit a delight to use.
At the heart of this kit, however, is the Code Bit: A programmable microprocessor with support for three inputs and outputs. It wirelessly connects to the Code Kit app on your PC, Mac, or Chromebook through a USB dongle, like connecting a wireless mouse to a computer.
That wireless setup makes the Code Kit a delight to use. As long as that dongle is plugged in to your computer and your circuit is powered, either by the included rechargeable battery or through your computer’s USB port, you can instantly send new code to the Code Bit at any time. This makes trial and error adjustments super quick and seamless. It’s easy to keep iterating on the code you’ve written to prototype changes on the fly — it allows kids to instantly see the results of their hard work.
Smartly designed, satisfying to use
The app comes with directions to make four games of varying difficulty: Ultimate Shootout; Hot Potato of Doom, Rockstar Guitar, and Tug of War. However, there are loads more tutorials to teach computer science principles individually, as well as lessons for educators hosted on Google Docs. LittleBits encourages teachers to edit and remix these lessons on the fly for their specific classroom. The code for each lesson is also pre-written so kids can work backwards for a deeper understanding of the logic, rather than mindlessly following directions.
It also helps that bits snap together with a satisfying tactile “click” that is both addictive and serves a practical purpose. As everything connects magnetically, the bits will repel each other if you attempt to attach them in the wrong order. There are also arrows painted on the Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs), and indents on the connectors to make it clear how everything should line up as you’re constructing a circuit.
The whole system is not only properly thought-out, but well made. LittleBits is still a kids’ toy, after all, and it has got to look cool, while being effortless to use. Fortunately, it manages both. The boards have an attractive white coat to them, and the connectors, wires, and batteries are made of high-quality plastic. The kit even comes with a grid to make sure your circuit stays in place. Nothing creaks or rattles, everything is labeled where it needs to be, and you’re never fighting with the hardware to get things done.
The cost is high, but the opportunities are endless
Of course, all this quality comes at a price, and it’s a steep one: $300 (though educators can save five percent). The sticker shock is slightly less jarring when you consider the prices Lego sets go for, but at least the Code Kit teaches kids a valuable resource that’s often under-served in schools.
If you want to introduce programming and engineering to a curious young mind in your life, and you can put up with the cost, the Code Kit is a great choice.