Like many of the leading independent STEM/coding related toys, Cubetto began life via a Kickstarter campaign in March 2016 with over six thousand backers investing around US$1.6 million. Cubetto was released for general purchase later that year and it has become synonymous with a new generation of high quality toys targeted at coding. It is a cute, box shaped, wooden robot for ages 3 and up which can be directed around a map using simple coding principles.
While it pricey (around US$300), I decided to buy this for Nina’s 4th birthday because I was looking for something in her age group (most coding related products target older kids). Also, the design and general marketing, plus the Kickstarter success made me pull the trigger. You can imagine my surprise when Nina saw the box and asked ‘Is that the robot?’ It turned out she had played it already at someone else’s house on the play date.
The unique screen-less design of the Cubetto is probably what’s most appealing. It’s clearly a high quality product with beautiful wood, nice colours and perhaps a Scandinavian simplicity? However, despite appearances, my daughters didn’t take to it as I had expected. It was momentarily fun, but it just didn’t maintain their interest for longer than a few minutes.
How to play
Cubetto is a minimalist square robot designed to function based on the commands set by the child operating the machine. It comes with a programming console, 16 coloured blocks that operate as code, a map, and an illustrated activity book. Starting the Cubetto requires putting in three AAA batteries in the robot (not included) and interface board. There is a sliding on and off switch located on the bottom of both the board and robot.
Coding with the Cubetto requires placing the code blocks on the programming board. There are four sets of four different blocks that have their own function. Each block is in a distinct colour and shape with forward, right, left and function being the four available commands. Kids can create their own programs (or routes) by placing the appropriate block on the board. For example, putting the forward block on the interface board will make the Cubetto move 15 cm forward upon pressing the bright red action button on the console – that’s the same distance as moving one block on the map. The whole process is very simple as the blocks can only fit in one direction and they display a LED light when they are activated.
The board can support 16 programming blocks at once, with the first twelve slots located on the top in the main sequence. There is room for four more blocks on a function line located near the bottom. All of the blocks placed on the function line are activated by putting the function block on the main sequence. The function line gives kids an introduction to the concept of methods in computer science. Just like methods, using the function row allows Cubetto users to make their program less redundant by not repeating the same actions over and over again (it’s like a loop short cut).
Included with the Cubetto is a large, 1-meter long map that is composed of numerous square grids illustrated with objects (like a castle or forest). Each square grid measures around 15 centimetres and is used to provide kids with a maze to guide their Cubetto around. It’s also fine to use the Cubetto on other surfaces besides the included map. The map has different starting points with the end mission being to reach the castle square. Included with the map is a storybook that provides instructions on how to use the robot along with a story line to follow while playing with the robot on the map. My kids loved the map’s design and immediately wanted to get Cubetto to the castle.
It’s clearly a high quality product with beautiful wood, nice colours and perhaps a Scandinavian simplicity?
How kids learn
Although playing with the toy may seem very innocuous, much of the Cubetto’s appeal is in its ability to make learning seem like fun. In my experience, the best way my kids learned with the Cubetto was on their own rather than me pushing them to follow the story. After turning it on and teaching them to give the robot coordinates with the blocks, Nina tried a few times until she figured out the basics of moving the robot. While teaching them about the function block took a bit of explaining, she did seem to finally realise that using it made things easier.
Watching her guide the Cubetto around the map was interesting to observe as she picked up the idea of sequences quickly (of course she had come across it with other toys). The Cubetto’s ability to display LED’s and provide sounds when a command is issued seems to also help explain how sequences work. The main board plays a unique sound after every sequence ends, so kids can easily discern whether a function is complete.
By combining blocks to write code on the interface board, children can create programs on the Cubetto according to where they want it to go. In this way, the Cubetto does achieve what it sets out to do – expose kids to sequences and functions without the need for electronics or screens.
While moving the Cubetto around the included map may be fun at first, as mentioned Nina got bored fairly quickly and wanted to try something new. To combat this, the manufacturer (Primo Toys) has provided 150+ hours of lesson plans and activities on the resources page on their website.
After registering an account on their website, a swath of content ranging from new story books to DIY activities and tutorials are available. Although much of this content is primarily aimed towards teaching kids the principles of the Cubetto in the classroom , it is still possible to use the materials at home. Personally, my daughters found the included Jetpack activity to be a lot of fun as it allowed them to express their creativity on their new toy.
Just like I stated in the introduction, the Cubetto is a big investment, however it manages to do a lot right by providing a fun physical representation of code to children that might not even know what the word code means. The use of different coloured and sized blocks, cute design and very appealing little robot is all well suited to the target demographic. However, for some kids the Cubetto may not provide enduring appeal. While that’s the same for most toys, due to the price tag, this is something to keep in mind.
high quality, kid friendly design
Easy to setup and use
No screen required
May not hold attention for long
Expensive given its simplicity
Additional maps purchased separately