Osmo Game Aims To Lower Age Limit To Learn Concepts Behind Coding

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Literacy is being redefined in our era of digital technology. The language of coding is becoming an essential element of literacy in the United States—as Latin and Greek once were for ambitious American colonists when the Declaration of Independence was signed 240 years ago.

Elite elementary schools are now introducing very young children to basic coding—but many American kids lack such exposure. So I’ve been wondering what families can do to fill in the gap.

That’s why Palo Alto, CA-based educational game company Osmo caught my eye recently as it announced a new product called Osmo Coding, which allows kids as young as five to control a cartoon character in an iPad game by assembling physical blocks of “code” on a tabletop.

Coding wasn’t Osmo’s first focus when it was founded in 2013 by former Google software engineers Pramod Sharma and Jerome Scholler, who are both fathers of young children. The startup’s core idea was to combine the hands-on learning style of kids 5 to 11 with the rich educational content that can be delivered through a mobile device.

Any Osmo kit contains a little red mirror attachment that snaps over the camera at the top of the iPad. The mirror makes objects on the tabletop visible to the iPad, and the original kits include physical tiles printed with numbers, letters, and shapes. In one game, the child moves the shape tiles around to duplicate an arrangement of matching pieces on the iPad screen—what Osmo calls an exercise in spatial reasoning. Other games explore math, spelling, and drawing.

By September of 2014, Osmo had shipped its first learning kits for young children, and Sharma, Osmo’s CEO, says they’re now being used in more than 15,000 schools. But Osmo Coding has become the startup’s best-selling product since it was introduced in late May, Sharma says.

“It’s really taking off,” Sharma says, although Osmo doesn’t disclose sales figures or revenues.

Osmo Coding isn’t one of the very low-cost or free options that might close the digital knowledge gap for students in schools with severely limited resources or families with strict budgets. (But see some suggestions on this here from Bay Area code school leaders.) On Amazon, the kits sell for $49, and so far, they only work with Apple’s iOS devices, not with the Android tablets that are often more competitively priced. Sharma says kits for Android are under consideration, though they won’t debut this year.

But Osmo Coding may be one indicator that parents and teachers now see basic programming skills as a mainstream component of elementary school education. With their new products for this younger market, education companies are pushing the age barriers for exposure to coding. A board game, “Robot Turtles: The Game for Little Programmers” is aimed at kids from 3 to 8. These educational games may help demonstrate how early in life a child can absorb key concepts underlying computer programming, such as sequencing, loops, and “if-then” commands.

Sharma expresses the appeal of Osmo Coding more in kid-power terms.

“The root idea of coding is that you tell a machine what to do,” Sharma says.

Osmo Coding is based on a game called “Strawbies” developed by an outside team Osmo later hired. “Strawbies,” which used physical blocks to represent code, was originally a project at Northwestern University’s TIDAL Lab. Northwestern grad Felix Hu teamed up with two graduates of the School of the Art Institute Chicago, Ariel Zekelman and Eric Uchalik, to create the game. It was further developed by Osmo.

In Osmo Coding, kids snap together flat, labeled blocks to direct the way a cartoon monster, Awbie, navigates around a garden-like landscape, gobbling up strawberries, and meeting challenges such as catching a beaver. There are blocks labeled for four functions: Walk, Jump, Hand (to grab something), and Magic, which makes flowers sprout around Awbie. The three “verb” blocks, which spur Awbie into action, have arrow knobs that can change the direction of motion. In the simplest exercise, a child would … Next Page »

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