Teaching a 3-Year-Old to Program—Without a Computer Screen

If you think STEM education needs to happen in preschool, this would be the way to do it

2 min read
Teaching a 3-Year-Old to Program—Without a Computer Screen
Photo: Primo

One of my favorite toys when my children were toddlers was the classic shape sorter. If you’ve had kids, you likely know what I mean: a box or canister with cutouts that fit different shaped blocks. The most basic versions have holes that will accommodate a cylinder, a cube, and a pyramid; others get more complex. I spent many happy hours sitting on the floor with my kids as they discovered the thrill of finding the right hole for each shaped block. It was always sad when this toy was outgrown.

So I fell instantly in love with Cubetto from startup Primo. Cubetto, a play set intended to teach basic programming literacy to three-year-olds, was unveiled at Highway1 accelerator’s biannual launch event held last week in San Francisco. I’m not sure if kids that young really need to learn programming—there’s been a fair amount of debate lately about how early to begin pushing STEM education, particularly in Silicon Valley.

My main objection to pushing STEM down to the diaper set is that it all seems to involve screen-based learning tools, and I am sure that little ones don’t need more screen time.  The Cubetto play set takes the screen out of the equation. Says Primo CEO Filippo Yacob: “Programmable toys [today] all function as an extension of tablets and smartphones; the programming only happens on the screen. That may be great for 7-year-olds, but it’s not for 3-year-olds.”

Here’s what else I like about Cubetto:

  • The basic play board has brightly shaped objects that plug satisfyingly into slots to make pleasing patterns. That’s pretty cool itself.
  • The play map and toy objects that go on it have that Brio toy train set feel to them. Brio and wooden train sets like it have been rocking the toy world since at least the 1950s.
  • The whole thing encourages experimentation. Move the blocks around; push the button; then what happens? Use only red blocks; then what happens? No instructions are necessary for preschoolers—or their parents.
  • Cubetto rhymes with Geppetto. Enough said.

Yacob believes that programming is a basic literacy skill that should be introduced in preschool, and thinks his toy intuitively teaches basic programming concepts including algorithms and loops. Maybe. But that’s not why I’d get down on the floor and join a three-year-old in playing with it. I’d be motivated by the fact that it just looks like we’d both have fun.

Yacob has been hand-building the gizmos, with funds from a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, and has shipped 800 of them. He plans mass market launches in the U.S. and U.K. early next year. The $179 retail price gets you the programming board, 16 programming blocks, a robot, the play world mat, and a few objects like trees and houses to populate the play world. More from Yacob in the video above.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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