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Sphero coding for kids: how programmable robots can help kids learn

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What’s the best type of coding for kids

The fun kind, right?

Or, is it something that offers hands-on learning and coding all in one? Or both fun and learning? And maybe even something more?

With Sphero, kids can build programs, and see them immediately come to life with easy-to-implement coding. And with many talents and skills packed within the Sphero Bolt, Sphero RVR, and other programmable robots, students now have the capability to create and build functionalities they could only dream of. 

Simply, Sphero offers amazing opportunities for kids to interact and engage with a robot that assists with building an understanding of programming fundamentals. 

The Sphero coding learning process

The best place for most kids to begin with any new endeavor is square one. Meaning, while it’s great to have lofty goals and aspirations, shooting for the moon right out of the gate when teaching kids to code might lead to more frustration, than anything. 

So, the beauty of coding with Sphero is that “square one” can even be thought of as “square 1a” and “square 1b” depending on a child’s level of coding familiarity. 

For instance,  those ready to code can dive in by giving Sphero directions in draw mode, which is more entry-level coding, and then progressing to placing movement blocks in a “advanced” block coding mode. (More on the two different modes in a bit.) 

Once kids get used to Sphero's capabilities, they can move on to the next set of blocks in addition to adding movement—like lights, and then sound blocks, and so on. From there? The next step can be JavaScript coding, and beyond!

Sphero coding modes

As mentioned, Sphero comes with two types of visual coding for kids—draw mode and code blocks mode. 

Depending on the selected mode, when programmed, kids can expect to see their Sphero react to movement, sharply change direction, and even detect collisions with surrounding objects. 

Draw mode

Just as it sounds, Sphero allows young coders to physically draw different paths and shapes for their bot to execute. As you might have guessed, this is a relatively easier coding method when compared to other available options; that is, even more straightforward than block-based coding, which in itself is easier to handle than text-based coding. 

Overall, the draw canvas is a great introduction to programming, where students are challenged to think about the different steps that go into programming a robot while taking into consideration the robot’s restrictions at the same time.

Specifically, the draw canvas allows students to draw a path for the Sphero to follow. And for example, with the Sphero Bolt, kids can customize the color of its LED matrix, and can also customize the speed of the bot as well.

Block mode

On the other hand, if your child is familiar with Scratch coding and/or other similar drag-and-drop coding activities, they’ll likely gravitate towards block mode with Sphero. 

Just as other, similar programs allow, block coding with Sphero utilizes pre-programmed blocks or “code chunks” for the execution of different outcomes.

Code block intro

If you’re new to the concept of block coding, everything Sphero is capable of doing has been condensed into snappable blocks kids can string together and fit together like a puzzle. 

This linear drag-and-snap system can be used to create a sequence of events, with code blocks allowing kids to implement a number of available types of functionalities, including movements, sound, animations, and events.

All of this simplifies programming into a more accessible format, giving even young children the opportunity to get started. 

Code block types

Before explaining what each block is, it’s useful for your child to think about the different things Sphero can do; or, the things they want their bot to do. For instance, it can move around and change color, but what else? 

From there, it’s easier to explain that each of Sphero’s actions can be coded and used in different coding blocks, with each action divided into the separate buckets as mentioned above, and explained in detail below:

Movements: Controls which direction Sphero goes and how fast it gets there. Kids can modify how far with a drop-down menu.

Lights: Customizes Sphero’s LED Matrix with specific colors, designs, and animations. Also sets the speed of transitions and light intensity.

Sounds: Sphero comes with a library of sound options and can even read written text. Sounds emit through the tablet.

Controls: Codes how to execute behaviors, though loops and if statements. (Read up on coding terms.)

Events: Functions that are triggered when something happens, like On Collision, On Landing, or On Freefall. 

Code blocks tips

If kids don’t know what a code block does, fear not! They can always view the code blocks’ information by pressing and holding that block. A pop-up will appear where they can select “block help” to see a quick explanation of the block’s functionalities. They can also select “learn more” to see more information from this window.

JavaScript coding

Once kids have learned how to use block coding to program movements and lights, text coding allows for even more freedom as young programmers move more into the coding world of professional programmers.

There are a lot of different kids coding languages, and even more languages in general, with JavaScript being one of the most popular—it is used in 95% of websites and can be used for programming phones and robots. (The Sphero EDU App uses JavaScript for text coding.)

Text coding with JavaScript in the Sphero EDU App has some similarities to block coding, but also has some pretty significant differences.

For example, kids will be typing their code in JavaScript, rather than dragging and dropping code blocks. In terms of how block coding can translate to text, here is an example:

Block coding: In block coding, kids would drag and drop the stop block into the canvas and attach it to the program.

Text coding: In contrast, with text coding, kids will type the exact phrase await stopRoll() inside the curly braces of the startProgram() in the canvas.

Not just "toys"

With all of this, Sphero coding is fun and entertaining, but the bot through which all of this comes to life is definitely not just another coding “toy." Instead, the Bolt, RVR, and other bots can be thought of as educational code companions, where students can also build problem-solving skills, and acquire a diverse head start into the world of STEM.

A photo of Ryan

Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!