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Play-i’s robots aim to help preschoolers learn the basics of computer programming.

The company has venture capital backing, but it launched a crowdfunding campaign today to generate awareness and pre-orders for its two robots — Bo and Yana.

Why might a preschooler need to program, you might be wondering? They don’t, but an early grasp of programming concepts can have a significant impact on the rest of their life.

“We believe programming is an essential skill that children should learn,” said founder and CEO Vikas Gupta in an interview with VentureBeat (Bo and Yana were also present). “In the 21st century, our kids should be creators with technology, not just consumers. Programming gives them a sense that the world is something they can conquer. They feel they can solve any problem.”

Gupta previously founded Jambool, which Google acquired for around $70 million in 2010. He left Google late last year and wanted to build something that would benefit his one year old daughter.

“Computer science education in the U.S. has gotten worse over the past 20 years,” he said. “Research shows that kids as young as preschoolers can grasp programming concepts, but no products existed that young children could learn programming with.”

Interacting with physical objects is critical for early childhood development, so Gupta knew that he wanted whatever he built to involve hardware.

After testing multiple prototypes, Play-i came out with Bo and Yana.

Kids can program Bo and Yana using a basic touch-screen interface that weaves in music, stories, and animation. They can make Bo play a toy xylophone, or have Yana’s “eye” light up.

During the demo, Gupta and I made Bo “oink” like a pig whenever we shook him — and I squealed in delight as a result.

Which Gupta said is exactly the point.

“We wanted to bring out the magic of programming through the magic of play and make something that adults would envy,” he said. “If you make it more fun for every child, kids will want to learn this, and we want parents and educators in the mix.”

Bo and Yana don’t involve a rigid, top-down curriculum. They are designed to encourage kids to explore and be curious while also learning problem solving, logical thinking, and how to break down a large problem into smaller parts and build it back up again.

The goal is not to get kids on their way to becoming software developers before they start kindergarten. Rather, it is an educational toy for this day and age, where kids start interacting with digital devices early.

Play-i also hopes to encourage more girls to be interested in computer science by making it fun, and not something that is boring or “for boys.”

Interestingly, Gupta said a prototype with wheels on it was largely rejected by girls because it seemed too much like a car or truck. They were more interested when it could be whatever they wanted it to be.

Google Ventures, the Madrona Venture Group, and private investors contributed to the $1 million seed round which supported early research and development. The crowdfunding campaign will bring the product to market. Bo costs $149 and Yanna costs $49, and they will start shipping next summer.

Play-i also has an API for developers and encourages them to play with Bo and Yana as well. The robots are designed to grow up with the kids, and work with other, more advanced programming interfaces like Scratch and Blockly.

Play-i – Delightful Robots for Children to Program from Play-i on Vimeo.

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