Cards program "Robot Turtles" to blast, turn or proceed to their destination. (Courtesy of Matthew Farber)
Cards program “Robot Turtles” to blast, turn or proceed to their destination. (Courtesy of Matthew Farber)

By Matthew Farber

Thanks in part to STEM education initiatives and the tech boom, coding in the classroom has become more ubiquitous. Computer programming tasks students to persistently work to solve problems by thinking logically. What’s more, learning how to code is a desired 21st century career skill.

There are several digital games designed for kids as young as 5 that turn coding into a fun activity, such as Kodable and Scratch Jr. But some game designers are going further back to programming’s fundamentals by creating physical games that can’t be found in any app store.

One tabletop game is Code Monkey Island. It features sequencing and looping statements printed on playable cards. In effect, the cards are the language; choosing correct conditional statements correctly can leads to victory.

Another board game that captured imaginations, and major crowdfunding on Kickstarter, is Robot Turtles, which teaches basic coding concepts to preschoolers. Unlike other children’s games (think: Candyland, Chutes and Ladders), the mechanic of play does not rely on luck. All cards are face up and the players work together cooperatively to win.

A child can build cognitive skills by playing Robot Turtles because when a child plays, or “programs,” a card, he or she is applying logic, according to Bill Ritchie, CEO of ThinkFun, which published the game. “Robot Turtles is a great example of what coding means for a preschooler,” Ritchie explained. “It is about sequencing instruction by instruction, and then being able to recognize the consequences. It’s a mental framework that is appropriate for a preschooler.” In other words, Robot Turtles helps growing minds think about thinking.

Why Teach Coding?

Teaching children how to code is not new; it dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. Most notable, perhaps, are the initiatives from MIT professor Seymour Papert. His MIT lab helped bring the Logo language into schools. In Logo, users programmed a graphical turtle on a computer’s screen. This exemplified Papert’s notion of constructionism, the learning theory that can be summed up as “learn by making.”

Although the Logo language may seem crude by today’s standards, its powerful ideas still resonate. Programming a computer meant that the learner created his or her own working system. Students were learning how to think. In fact, the Logo initiative lives on — it evolved to the visual, interlocking brick language today called Scratch, which was followed up with Scratch Jr.

Setting up the Game

Flickr/Buster Benson
Flickr/Buster Benson

To start the game, the adult (parent or teacher) — known as the “Turtle Mover” — places the Robot Turtle Card at the start square and then places the Jewel Card (the goal of the turtle’s quest) elsewhere on the board. The Turtle Mover is the only one allowed to move the turtle. He or she also provides feedback by making beeping sounds. The child — or “Turtle Master” — then selects forward, left or right directional playing cards, which serve as commands to advance the turtle to the jewel.

When a child wins — or “levels up” — in Robot Turtles, additional challenges “unlock.” Obstacles include stone and ice walls, as well as wooden crates. More complex game cards include Function Frogs, which can be “coded” to repeat a series of programmed instructions. In essence, the adult is the computer to the child programmer.

Solving Problems Together

Entrepreneur Dan Shapiro invented Robot Turtles because he grew frustrated whenever he played board games, along with his two young children. “One of the things that led to Robot Turtles was because [children’s] games give parents an unfair advantage,” Shapiro said. “Either the parent wins over and over again or they end up throwing the match. Part of the inspiration for Robot Turtles was to create a game where parents and kids could come to it at their own level; the parents do one thing and the kids do a different thing.”

Meaningful social cooperation between parent and child superseded Shapiro’s desire to teach coding skills. “The interaction would be something really magical,” he continued. “It [Robot Turtles’ creation] didn’t come about because I wanted to teach kids to program; it came about because I wanted a fun way for kids and parents to interact.”

Any programmer will tell you that coding a computer is more than entering lines of instructions. When a programmer clicks “run,” the results may fail. The next step is “debugging” — the often painstaking process of error-checking code. Debugging until a solution is found is similar to the 21st century competency of design thinking: trial and error based on a challenge.

In Robot Turtles, when the child gives an adult a “wrong” card — for example, a move that takes the turtle off of the game’s board — an opportunity to learn emerges. Ritchie explained, “If a child puts down a bad set of cards, then the parent has an obligation to allow the child to own the responsibility. The child then has to make the decision to debug and to change.”

Rather than correcting a child’s mistake, the adult is instructed to simply make a beeping sound. The child Turtle Master can then tap on the “Bug Card,” a round card adorned with a ladybug. After announcing “Debug,” the child can adjust his or her set of commands. Here, failure becomes iteration.

“If you ask me the one thing I want my kids to feel about learning, it is that you cannot be afraid to try things and see what happens,” Shapiro said. “It was crucial for me to build that [debugging] into the game — more than the skill of learning about computers. The ability to undo the last move — with no penalty or loss of points — where you just try something and then try again, really gets into the heart of the educational mission of the game. It’s not about learning how to program. It’s about learning how to learn.”

  • Brian Silberberg

    Very cool idea, in my experience with teaching coding it could often run into roadbumps if kids found the idea tedious and boring. But making it into a game there is some potential to get the kids of that persuasion interested in the process. Would be hugely interested in seeing how effective this turns out to be down the line.

  • Jessa

    Great idea, I love seeing interesting ways of teaching coding to kids. I work at UCode where we teach kids after school at our center & online virtually how to code. What an amazing and creative world we will live in when all children will have coding education right along with math and science.

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