Fisher-Price Teaches the Next Generation of Designers

January 20, 2016 by Jennifer A. Diffley

The universal children's toy company unveiled its newest creation at CES 2016. But why would a company known for its baby toys be interested in coding?

Among the hundreds of creations unveiled at this year's CES, one seemed slightly out of place: the Code-a-Pillar, a toy designed by Fisher-Price to teach children the basics of coding. Kids can assemble the Code-a-Pillar's segments in different combinations to determine how the toy moves. As kids become more familiar with the segments and their corresponding actions, they can set up obstacles around the room and "code" the Code-a-Pillar to navigate those obstacles. An accompanying app will provide new challenges to get children more acquainted with problem solving and sequencing.

Why would a toy company be interested in introducing children to the wonderful world of designing? Because the world needs coders and engineers.

We contacted Tony Favorito, Director of Product Design, at Fisher-Price to get more info on the Code-a-Pillar and to see what may be in store for the next generation of geniuses.

As hardware nerds, we’re stoked to see more tech toys enter the mainstream market. How did this idea first come about?

When we decided to create a line of preschool learning toys, we started by brainstorming on STEM, STEAM and coding just as the buzz around coding started to reach younger age children. We challenged ourselves to develop a product for preschoolers that was screenless and hands-on.  Something you could piece together in a natural progression – just like code-- that was also gender neutral and a familiar character for preschoolers. A designer sketched a caterpillar, and that sketch eventually became the Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar.

Is this the first time Fisher-Price has created toys to get kids excited about making or coding?

Over the last 30 years, we’ve created preschool toys that may have included a sequencing feature, but Code-a-Pillar is the first ever toy from Fisher-Price that focuses primarily on exposing children to the foundational skills to coding, like thinking skills, problem solving and sequencing. We reinforce these skills throughout the Code-a-Pillar play experience. 

So far, what’s been the reaction to the Code-a-Pillar? Do kids love it?

Since unveiling Code-a-Pillar earlier this month during CES, we’ve been thrilled with not only the overall positive media attention, but parent interest on social media as well. The debut of Code-a-Pillar on our Fisher-Price Instagram account is our top performing Instagram post of all time, so it’s great to see interest from moms, dads and grandparents almost immediately.

In Play Lab testing with the Code-a-Pillar, preschoolers were so focused, working to achieve specific tasks and experiments they created for themselves and problem solving through trial and error. They were really thinking and having fun doing it. For us, that’s a win because that’s the goal behind our entire Think & Learn line. 

What challenges have you encountered bringing the Code-a-Pillar to market?

Right now, there’s a conversation bubbling with parents, educators and thought leaders on how to best educate the next generation. The skills needed to succeed in the 21st century are different than the past. As an early childhood development company, we want to offer families tools for their learning journey above and beyond the alphabet and numbers. Our biggest challenge has been understanding this new way to learn and how Fisher-Price can help.

What kinds of toys should we expect to see down the road that are aimed at introducing kids to STEM?

We can’t share specifics just yet, but the rest of the Think & Learn line will debut at New York Toy Fair in February. The line will inspire little learners to become big thinkers through toys that reinforce STEM thinking. We’re hoping these toys will challenge children to think differently, explore, and dig deeper than they might have before while boosting their confidence and passion for learning.

Why is early introduction of coding so important?

The foundational skills to coding like problem solving, sequencing, and thinking skills, are important for anyone to possess in life no matter their career. These skills are not just limited to those in coding and programming. These skills are the basis for a curious mind. A mind that’s open to finding a new solution and recognizing there is more than one answer or way to accomplish a task. 

Have you noticed a disparity in interest between boys and girls? If so, how are you planning to get girls excited about coding and engineering?

We haven’t seen a disparity of interest between genders in tests in the Fisher-Price Play Lab.  Girls and boys both enjoy problem solving with Code-a-Pillar and get equally as excited when they find “success.” They don’t see Code-a-Pillar as a STEM toy. They see it as a toy that provides total control, and for a preschooler that’s fun! 

Is this the start of a trend?

We hope so. We hope parents around the world embrace this new way to learn with Fisher-Price so we can continue to create fun tools that help the next generation develop the skills they’ll need to be successful in life. 

Why should parents invest in technology learning toys?

Fisher-Price focuses first on early childhood development with technology as the means to an end. We believe children learn best through rich, diverse play experiences, and often times technology opens doors to create products that further immerse a child in play. We hope families enjoy playtime with not only learning toys, but also toys that help build imagination, encourage sharing, inspire physical activity and more. There’s something for everyone.

The toy is a smart move for Fisher-Price and a smart move for parents who want to ensure their children have a leg-up in the job market of tomorrow. And, since Fisher-Price and Mattel are the leaders of the toy industry, more STEAM-focused toys are sure to come. That's good news for our children's future.