There are a plethora of toys that promise to teach your kid to code. Many of which scratch the surface of computer programming with intuitive drag-and-drop interfaces but fail to cover anything beyond the basics.
Sparki, developed in the labs of ArcBotics, is a small tabletop robot designed to teach your kid real code. The robot doesn’t appear as polished as, say, a Sphero, but at the heart of the robot are some serious brains. Sparki boasts an Arduino-compatible board, an ultrasonic sensor, an LCD screen, and more. Most of the robot’s parts are visible too, giving budding engineers and programmers a peek at how Sparki works.
Sparki features different programming environments, allowing everyone from beginner to expert the opportunity to code. For beginners, there’s the block-based ArduBlock. Basically, you drag and drop blocks of “code” in sequence to make Sparki do something. More seasoned users can program with actual code using the Arduino IDE. Both programming methods are straightforward and plug-in-play. Simply download the software and connect Sparki to your computer (Mac, Windows, or Linux) via USB.
ArcBotics has published over 100 lessons to help users learn with Sparki. You can program the little bot to avoid obstacles, grasp objects, or follow lines. Simpler programs are compatible with ArduBlock, but for more complex programs (PID control for example), there’s the Arduino IDE (SparkDuino). The company also has plenty of helpful tips and resources, so if you run into any trouble with Sparki, you’re covered.
To get the most out of Sparki, I’d recommend exploring the robot’s functionality through the Arduino IDE. The language is easy to learn (nothing too difficult for a middle schooler) and the possibilities are (almost) endless. You could take advantage of Sparki’s bottom-facing sensors and learn basic control loops like PID. The gripper and ultrasonic sensor could also be programmed to detect and retrieve objects.
With Sparki, there’s not a whole lot I can complain about. Though, I wish a couple details were addressed. For starters, the robot is extremely slow. There are two motors geared up to plastic wheels with minimal traction. It moves like a snail on hard surfaces and not at all on shaggy carpets. Secondly, Sparki requires a set of 4 AA batteries. No rechargeable battery option available…
Sparki fulfills the promise of teaching your kid to code without spiffy hardware and software. There’s no lavish smartphone app or cutesy storyline to give the illusion your child is learning the language of tomorrow. The robot’s tech is not the latest but it is tested. Sparki costs a pretty penny at $149 but offers immense value with dozens of programming lessons.
For more amazing toys designed to teach your kids about technology, visit simplebotics.io.
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