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Google makes coding playful with Bloks tactile toys

Google wants to use the new open-source tech to help children as young as five learn computational thinking skills.

Google has come up with a new way to teach kids to code and there's not a computer in sight. That's not because they're not there -- instead they're all hidden inside physical toys.

Project Bloks is the tech giant's new tactile platform to get children learning the underlying computational skills required to take on programming.

The tech is based around the simple concept of using building blocks to teach kids to code, a method already tried and tested by other programs like Scratch, a programming language and online community created by MIT. Unlike Scratch, which requires kids to sit in front of a computer, Bloks are physical blocks, or as Google is calling them pucks and boards.

Google is one of several major tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, that have educational programs in place to skill up the next generation of computer programmers. The big difference with Bloks is that there is absolutely no interaction with traditional computer interfaces, instantly lowering the barrier of entry to the world of coding.

A brain board based on the budget Raspberry Pi microcomputer provide power and connectivity, then each individual puck can be programmed with different instructions, for example, turn on and off, move left or play music. When you place the pucks on base boards, they read the instruction and feed them back to the brain board. All of these can be arranged in an endless array of configurations to create new play experiences.

"We thought about how we learned concepts -- we learned with our hands and toys," said Project Bloks Team Lead Jayme Goldstein, describing the development of the tech to CNET. The very tactical nature of the toys mean that they could be used to teach established computational thinking to children as young as five who are not yet literate, he said.

For Google, Bloks is a research project, and it is therefore open source and available for toy makers to take and build what they like with it. Toys could be made out of any material and take any form. Some examples Google has given are a compositional music maker, or an If This Then That-style sensor kit that could help control a smart home.

Google will not be putting its own toys on sale, but over the coming months will work with experts in the field of play and education to create more possibilities for Bloks. Experiences created in conjunction with Lego, an obvious partner for the project, and Raspberry Pi will also be available for children to play with at the Exploratorium in San Francisco this summer.