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As Its Learn-to-Code Board Game Ships, ThinkFun Hopes Parents Will Get It

"It’s not like Candy Land, where you’re just moving things around."

The learn-to-code industry is growing fast as eager parents race to give their children a head start. But as the New Yorker noted earlier this month, there’s some debate over the right things to teach.

As the article points out, though, some key programming concepts have endured for decades, so education built around those concepts seems a safer bet than education built around a specific language. It’s that sort of conceptual learning that ThinkFun hopes Robot Turtles will advance.

“A lot of people talk about it, but not that many people have their mind around what it really means,” ThinkFun President Bill Ritchie said in an interview with Re/code. He was referring to the company’s more general purpose of teaching “thinking skills” — its most famous product is the sliding-car puzzle game Rush Hour — but the same is true, he said, of the coding movement.

“Some people know what they mean, while others are bandwagoning and imprecise,” Ritchie said. “Some people say, ‘When you are baking, you are doing the equivalent of coding.’ Well, kind of.”

ThinkFun is interested in the matter because Robot Turtles, a programming-concepts board game aimed at preschoolers, just started shipping. The game, invented by former Googler Dan Shapiro, hit its $25,000 Kickstarter goal in five hours last September, and ultimately raised $631,000.

On the surface, one might think the biggest hurdle is getting kids to play, but Ritchie said Shapiro’s design pulls off a clever head-fake. The young players learn program concepts incidentally, giving their parents commands to run as they work together to navigate a maze. This conceit makes children happy because they’re the “radiant center of the universe,” Ritchie said.

“The kid puts down a control card that says ‘Move forward,'” he explained. “That’s writing a piece of code. The parent plays the role of the computer.”

Ritchie — whose brother Dennis Ritchie invented the programming language C and co-created Unix — said writing code can be a form of storytelling, and that a complementary online community, Robot Turtles Adventure Quest, will encourage kids to write stories around the game. He said it’s not yet clear how actively families will wind up using this sort of pseudo-social network.

“Like anything, it starts with a dribble and then it builds,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that we have not tapped into a hidden vein where parents are itching to do this. There will be some education process [for the parents].”

Also challenging: Making sure parents understand that, as with the computer, they need to be actively involved in the game. In order to win the game, they have to help their kids talk through the equivalent of “debugging,” figuring out why a command didn’t move the turtle where the kid wanted it to go.

“It’s not like Candy Land, where you’re just moving things around,” Ritchie said.

So far, 25,000 copies of Robot Turtles have either been shipped or ordered, he said. The game costs $25 online, is available in neighborhood toy stores and should be in Target stores next month.

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