Loveland Library's RoboKids lets kids explore the fun side of robotics

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by Julia Rentsch, courtesy of Reporter Herald

Spherical robots that careen around a room, controlled by a child's finger on an iPad — we've arrived at the future. And, it's very fun.

The controlled chaos of the RoboKids event put on monthly by the Children's Department at the Loveland Public Library (CO) provides kids ages 4 and up with an opportunity to learn from and play with small robotic toys. 

While it's fun for kids to crash the rolling 'bots into walls or draw loopy roads with markers for a small reading robot to follow across the table, the children are also learning the basics of toys that can later be used for programming practice, said facilitator of the event Cindi Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer said the library has put on the event for about three years, during which their robot collection has grown to more than 10 robots. The library first started their robot collection four years ago after working with Loveland High Robotics Club to build a Lego Mindstorm EV3, a programmable motorized robot built with Lego bricks.

Pfeiffer said the library is money-conscious when it buys robots, and tries to buy when they are on sale.

"It's hard to know what to buy, because you want it to last," she said.

Attendance at the event varies between 10 and 40 kids per session, and while some kids have robots to play with at home already, there are many kids who would otherwise not have the opportunity without the library's program, Pfeiffer said.

"I've been thanked over and over again because parents can't afford to buy them, but the kids can come here and play with them," Pfeiffer said.

After signing an agreement promising the robot's well-being, kids and their parents can also check out robots with their library card to take home, Pfeiffer said. The kinds of robots kids can check out don't require a tablet to control them; for example, the color-recognizing Ozobots will follow any line drawn on a page with special markers, in addition to recognizing drawn color codes that prompt the robots to do special tricks.

Eight-year-old Elijah said Saturday was his first time at RoboKids, but that he has played with robots before: at school, on rainy days. 

When asked how he thinks robotics will be used in the future, Elijah responded that he thinks they'll be useful "in space colonies."

While playing with Ozobots, Lara, 9, said she likes that robots can follow the codes a person inputs and because they electronically understand directions.

"It's cool how they can follow these codes," Lara said. "Only, if you don't draw it correctly, it won't do anything." 

Pfeiffer said the free-play with the robots lets kids get accustomed to the technology, which they can use in more advanced ways as they get older.

"You can actually program the Sphero to move a certain way," Pfeiffer said. "And as they advance, they'll learn that."

As may be expected, some difficulties arise with putting so many kids and robots in one room. 

"We don't have enough iPads to cover everything ... and, sometimes, (the signals) interfere with each other," she said. 

However, the library is still looking to grow the robot collection as the technology gets increasingly advanced. 

"Now, we're taking kid suggestions (on what to buy)," Pfeiffer said. "We can't keep up with how fast they're coming out with new robots."