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Osmo Coding kit aims to be the Lego of coding

Coding is becoming an increasingly desirable skill in the modern world. There’s a growing consensus that children should be exposed to programming earlier and more often.

“We’ve got to have our kids in math and science, and it can’t just be a handful of kids. It’s got to be everybody. Everybody’s got to learn how to code early,” President Barack Obama himself said in a Re/code interview last year.

The question is: How do we do that?

Osmo is hoping that its newly announced Coding kit is part of the answer. The kit has been designed as an intuitive route into programming for young children — it’s a clever iPad accessory that aims to be as accessible as possible for boys and girls, teaching them core coding concepts as part of fun play.

“Coding is all about giving a command to a computer about what to do,” Pramod Sharma, Osmo’s CEO and founder, told Digital Trends. “What we have done with Osmo Coding is make each command a physical block. Kids can physically put together a set of commands to make simple programs.”

If you’re not familiar with Osmo, the company created a number of learning games for kids which work with a special iPad stand and camera accessory. The idea of positive and healthy screen play is at the heart of the company and so kids move physical pieces on a tabletop in front of the iPad and the Osmo apps pick up on that through the iPad’s camera.

Related: Osmo connects tangible toys with iPad games to keep your kids laughing and learning

The first batch of games challenged kids to put letter blocks together to spell out words, or create different animals and objects using a set of geometric shapes. It was an imaginative way to use the iPad that proved very popular. Now Osmo wants to bring that same tangible play idea into the realm of coding.

We got a sneak peek at the Osmo Coding kit in action. It works in concert with an app called Coding With Awbie. There are various different action blocks that kids can put together, and when they press play the cute, on-screen character, Awbie, follows the sequence they’ve created to explore his colorful world.

“Effectively you are stitching instructions together, but it never feels like coding,” explained Sharma.

Children can choose from four different commands, including walk, jump, grab, and a magic command that sparks something unpredictable, such as a burst of flowers, around Awbie. There’s a dial on each block with an arrow that dictates the direction to go in. Number blocks can be added to the end, to say walk forward five, for example. Nothing happens until they add the play button to the sequence and press it.

They’re effectively programming the controls to prompt Awbie to explore the world, instead of using a gamepad. As they discover how to use the system through trial and error, watching the real-time action on the iPad screen, kids learn to create more and more complex sequences. There’s also a repeat block, so they can create loops and there’s a special block that can free Awbie if he gets stuck.

“We tried to remove as much frustration as possible in the gameplay,” Sharma said. “The way we’ve designed the game you don’t feel bad failing. In fact, when we test with kids they like to find fail conditions, they try to fail to see what happens.”

Some of the inspiration for the Osmo Coding kit came from MIT research about the importance of a physical, tangible element to learning for kids. Programming is an activity with a steep learning curve and it can seem inaccessible. Introducing a physical element makes it easier for children to get to grips with, quite literally.

Related: The BBC is helping kids learn to code with one million free Micro: Bits computers

“Everyone on the Osmo team in some form or another got inspired by Lego,” says Sharma. “What’s really powerful about Lego is that you figure out what to do with it on your own. You might not build the best structure, but you can have fun and learn and build your own thing.”

There are no electronics in the Osmo Coding blocks, but the designers spent months getting the look and feel right. Magnets create a sense of haptic feedback, so it’s satisfying to snap them together, and the icons are clear.

“We believe making it intuitive is the most important aspect, nobody is telling you what to do,” Sharma explains.

There are plans to continue expanding Awbie’s world with new environments and creatures, and with challenges to suit different ages and levels of ability. Officially it’s aimed at kids ages 5 to 12, but it should appeal to kids aged 4 and up.

Just as you might learn important things about engineering or architecture as a byproduct of playing with Lego, Sharma hopes kids will learn about coding as a by-product of playing with Osmo. But in both cases, fun comes first.

“If you want every child to code, make something so awesome that kids want to do it,” suggests Sharma.

The Osmo Coding kit is available on the Osmo website starting today and will be in Apple Stores within the next couple of weeks. If you already have the Osmo base, then you can pick up the new Coding pack for $49, or you can buy the complete package, including Coding With Awbie and the base, for $98.

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