Forget Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels. Today's hot new toys are teaching kids how to innovate. Armed with new research linking childhood play and technical aptitude, entrepreneurs are shaking up the $22 billion toy industry.
Parents, eager to give their children an early advantage, are clamoring for toys that teach concepts such as coding, robotics, and engineering. "It's the geek-chic trend," says Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association. "It's cool to code, and parents see the potential." But for a new toy to take off, it must be more than just educational. It has to be fun.
Here's how four startups are turning technology into child's play:
After noticing that they were among the few female graduate engineering students at Stanford University, Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks started to ask why. The pair recalled the toys that inspired them to pursue engineering. Brooks recalled making dolls and dinosaurs with a miniature saw from Santa; Chen remembered playing with her brother's Legos and Lincoln Logs. (Others were similarly inspired by building toys. See the favorite childhood toys of innovators, on the opposite page.) Chen and Brooks also found new research suggesting that building toys can hone spatial skills used in engineering. Yet most of those toys are marketed to boys. The two created Roominate in 2012, raising $86,000 on Kickstarter. The Mountain View, California, company sells $30 to $50 kits that let kids build and wire their own dollhouses and trick them out with motorized elevators and glowing TV sets. Some kids go beyond dollhouses: One designed a car wash, and another made a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's open ended," says Chen. "It lets girls build anything they can imagine."
How early can a child learn to code? Turns out, kids as young as 5 can grasp basic programming concepts, according to new research. That's what inspired former Google manager Vikas Gupta to start Play-i. His Mountain View-based company makes blue toy robots that can be programmed using a simple iPad app to roam around, pick up objects, and tell stories. Gupta, who has two young children, believes that programming skills will be essential to kids in the future, regardless of their jobs. To get kids engaged, he gave the robots personalities and names: Bo ($169) and Yana ($59). After raising $1.4 million on Kickstarter--well above Play-i's $250,000 goal--the company received another $8 million in venture capital in March. Play-i, which has 15 employees, plans to start shipping the toy robots this fall.
Programmer Dan Shapiro hated playing board games like Candy Land, but he wanted a way to spend quality time with his preschool-aged twins. So while on leave from Google last year, Shapiro made up his own board game, called Robot Turtles, that uses turtles, mazes, and tokens to "sneakily" teach kids programming skills--without using a computer. Shapiro raised more than $630,000 from backers on Kickstarter last September and quickly sold out of the $25 game. Shapiro did not intend to start a board-game company, so he licensed the game to toymaker ThinkFun to boost production. Robot Turtles will be in retail stores this summer.
Eight years ago, MIT graduate student Ayah Bdeir set out to build a toy that did for electronics what Legos did for construction. The result? LittleBits, construction kits that contain tiny circuit boards, motors, sensors, and lights that kids can use to create their own motorized toys. No wiring is required: All of the pieces snap together with magnets. Since LittleBits launched in 2011, the New York City-based company has raised more than $15 million in funding. More than 1,800 schools use its $100 kits in classrooms. Bdeir says the kits help kids understand how an elevator door or night-light works--and they're making their own creations, such as racecars and robots. "It's much more than a toy," Bdeir says. "It's an invention tool."