Learning to code is now as much part of your children’s education as long division, conjugation of verbs and that rhyme about the six wives of Henry VIII (or at least it should be). Alongside code-teaching apps like Scratch and Swift Playgrounds, we’ve seen physical robots, toys and systems launched to briAng code outside of your computer or tablet. You can find more educational toys here: ToyHQ.co.uk
Wonder Workshop’s Dash, the latest I’ve seen, is my favorite. It’s designed for children 6-11 years old and is six inches tall. The stack of spheres can move freely on the three wheels under its bodies. There is also a head that can move on its own. It can be controlled by lights on its head and body, which you can also control. The light can see, hear, and speak in limited ways.
Five apps are available for Android or iOS. The three most important ones for FireOS are also available. This is useful for parents who have Amazon FireHD tablets for their children. Each app includes tutorials that will help you (and your children) build more complex programs. Then, you can all get coded away.
Your children may benefit from adding Dash, a real-world component to their coding. It may be more fun for them to learn and code with something tangible than just an app. Dash, a robot that is more human than a digital character, feels more natural and endearing. It can turn its head to hear your voice – if it is programmed to – so that it appears as if it is looking at you and listening.
Dash can also help with comprehension. Programming a character to move is the most common child-focused coding tool. This can be either an action or a reaction to stimuli. It can be difficult for younger children to see their virtual world from their perspective. For example, they might not know if they should turn left or right. They can simply stand behind Dash to work it out in the real world.
Children can also benefit from a physical toy, which helps them understand the purpose of coding. Learning to code, like algebra and science, is more about teaching children the right mental models of how it all works. This will help them be prepared to study further (if they wish to become programmers or data scientists) or simply have a basic understanding of technology’s workings.
Robots such as Dash demonstrate to children that coding is not just about moving pixels around behind a monitor. It can also be used to control physical systems, from your heating system to space rockets.
You can also code together and have a better experience. Although two children sharing one robot may sound like a recipe to contrast squabbling, it was a great way to encourage collaboration in a way that you don’t get with Scratch Jr. It could be as simple or as complex as one child triggering the code and the other avoiding obstacles. It is easier for two children to work together on a robot together, regardless of whether they are following a tutorial or not.
The journey of a real robot can also teach you some science lessons. Dash does not actually turn his wheels; he simply spins each wheel faster than the others. You can let your child set the speed for each wheel, allowing them to experiment and learn about the physics.
Parents who worry about their children’s physicality may also be concerned by Dash’s physicality. We can convince ourselves that this is more like playing with Mecchano rather than sucking up a tablet.
Dash is a happy robot
Dash is a fun little pyramid of spheres that can move independently. After charging the USB port, turn it on and it will dance happily while emitting little woos.
The 12 LED segments of the cyplopian’s eye are white and can be turned on or off to make it brighter or darker. It can also wink, and its front and sides have lights that can change colours.
Dash can speak and listen in its own way. There are preset sounds that range from animal noises to exclamations of “Ta Da!” To match Dash’s, you can record your own. These are slightly muffled into a squeaky falsetto. Despicable Me’s Minions are responsible for some of the voice and physical design elements, including the choice of mannerisms.
Dash, your little minion is very well-behaved. It can hear for claps and trigger your programs. Or you can put a big button on the top of its head to activate it. Dash can also detect obstacles.
Although Dash is a graceful and elegant dog, we found a few issues. It’s preset movement patterns sometimes require more space than my quite-large-for-the-UK front room has (Dash is from the US, where houses are generally more spacious, and it needs a space of around 2m x 2m). It also had difficulty spinning on a thinner rug so it may have problems with thicker pile carpets.
The battery was able to hold its charge for long enough code sessions and charged quickly.
Two clip-on ears have Lego studs at the top. These allow you to make hats and carry around trays.
Wonder Workshop also offers accessories for Dash, including a Dot companion, a battery, and a catapult. These accessories look very interesting, even though I did not get to test them. I recommend the Dot companion for learning how programs communicate. However, I am wary about letting my children use the catapult. Your children might be different.
The Dash is priced at a reasonable PS150/US$150 from Apple and Wonder Workshop, though it’s available from Amazon for a minimum of tenner. For as low as PS199.99/$199.99, you can get a bundle with Dot from Amazon and Wonder Workshop. You can also purchase bundles that include accessories to save even more.
Dash robot offers apps for everyone
Wonder Workshop created four apps that can be used with Dash, plus one for the xylophone. It’s iOS- and Android-only.
The apps are colorful and my kids found them enjoyable. This is despite the fact that they have different interests and abilities. My oldest son is autistic, so he was more interested in tech and my youngest more focused on the benefits it offers (and the fun it can bring).
Start with Line and Go if your child has never used a coding app. They’re likely ready to use Blockly if they’ve already used Scratch Jr.
Line and Go are the easiest. The below remote control Go allows you to drive Dash around and turn the lights on and off. You can also get it talking by using Line ( below ). You can also trigger preprogrammed behaviors, such as dance routines or the like.
Go is a glorified remote control car. But it’s a great introduction to Dash for younger children. This is not available for Amazon Fire tablets. It’s a shame, as my children sometimes wanted to drive Dash around just for the fun of it.
You can draw a line with Line ( beneath) freehand, using as many loops or wiggles as you like. This is how Dash follows the line like a trained sheepdog. Dash can be given actions to follow along the way. This introduces Dash to the idea of a computer program that is a series linear actions, before you add the complexity of multiple inputs and different outputs.
Once you have mastered Line, you can move on to Wonder or Blockly. The choice of which one you choose depends on the children. Wonder is easier for children who are visual learners. Blockly is the closest to “true” coding.
Wonder uses a flowchart to create more complicated programs. This model is used for everything, from mapping business processes to creating visual effects in Hollywood movies, mixing footage with CG robots and explosions.
Flowcharts begin with triggers, such as starting the program, pressing a button, and then clapping their hands. These are connected to nodes that represent actions and conditions. You can build complexity and respond to stimuli by looping the flows back to create programs that never end but still bring Dash to life.
Wonder is about teaching logic, programming and other concepts. This may prove to be more beneficial for your child over the long-term because it encourages them not only to look at programming languages but also the systems that underlie them.
Online sharing of creations is possible, though communication is not allowed between users (which can be a benefit from a safety perspective). However, you can also download other people’s created files. These are great for children who like to disassemble other creations and see how they work.
Blockly is the final app. This is where you would start if your child has already learned something like Scratch Jr. This app is basically a simplified version of Scratch, constrained by the physical limitations of the Dash robot.
You can build stacks with commands using loops and If/Else condition to control its behavior, much like Scratch.
This is where you can’t code with Wonder Workshop’s apps using Dash. You can use Dash with Apple’s Swift Playgrounds – where you can write code as well as building Lego-like components together – but nothing in Wonder’s otherwise-brilliantly-clear instructions mentioned this. It was only by accident that I found it on Google.
Swift Playgrounds is a great app for the next step. However, I wish there was something like Dash on Android or FireOS.