Bryanne Leeming got her first lessons in coding when she was 8 years old. But after learning some of the basics in school, she left computers behind. When Leeming returned to programming as part of her studies at McGill University in Montreal, however, she realized she was calling on those concepts she had picked up so many years earlier.
“I found I had a bump just because I’d learned the basics,” she said. “It really changed my life.”
A few years later, while pursuing her MBA at Babson University, Leeming merged this insight with her lifelong love of sports to create Unruly Studios, a Boston start-up that aims to teach children coding and get them moving at the same time.
Many education experts believe that coding will soon be an essential skill for young people entering the workforce. At the same time, there is growing concern about the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of children. Unruly Studios wants to take on both issues with products that make learning and movement more accessible and engaging.
The company’s debut product, Splats, will be available in October. It’s a system that consists of two “splats” — sturdy, interactive floor tiles that can be pushed, tapped, and even stepped on — and an app that uses a simple visual coding language to lets users create games to play on the equipment.
“Our products get kids playing within an entire room,” Leeming said. “We call it active STEM learning.”
Leeming began developing the idea in earnest in 2015 as part of the Summer Venture Program at Babson, a selective entrepreneurship initiative for student businesses. While there were plenty of ways for young people to learn coding, none of them tapped into the way children play in real life: socially, physically, collaboratively. Leeming wanted to fill that gap.
The original plan was to create one larger square platform that players could move around on. She built the prototype tile entirely by hand over two months. Her husband helped her build the 4- by 4-foot wooden frame with materials from Home Depot, and she learned the electronics she needed by attending hacker nights at Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville. She even soldered 64 LED lights into place.
Since then, the design has evolved through another 18 iterations. Leeming decided it made more sense to use multiple, smaller tiles to encourage more movement and allow more kids to get involved.
In 2017, David Kunitz, a veteran of the toy industry giants Hasbro and Mattel, joined the team and created the Splats’ signature look: a brightly colored plastic casing framing an amoeba-shaped light-up panel.
The coding app, which connects to the Splats via Bluetooth, features colorful, drag-and-drop boxes of code that children assemble to create their own games. Users can tell the program what to do when the Splat is pressed, control the devices’ lights and sounds, and tally players’ scores, among other functions. Children who have used the system so far have created projects including a Splat piano and a game to teach preschoolers numbers and colors.
The app will come loaded with a few pre-written games, such as a version of “Whack-A-Mole” that challenges players to press the Splat as quickly as possible whenever it lights up a specific color. As they become more comfortable with coding, kids can modify these games — for example, changing the target color or tweaking the timing.
A pack of two Splats and access to the app will cost $149.99. Pre-orders are open on the company’s website.
The young business has attracted attention. It ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall, taking in more than $40,000, and says it has taken pre-orders for half of its planned first production run. It recently won first place in the Small Biz Salute Pitch Off contest run by Inc. magazine and the UPS Store, and has a received a $100,000 grant from the AT&T Aspire Accelerator.
“It’s a really exciting company,” said Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England. “They found a truly remarkable way to incorporate physical fitness and coding.”
Last year, Unruly Studios ran a pilot program with Somerville Public Schools to see how the technology would work in elementary school classrooms. The Splats were a hit with children and educators alike, said Jason Behrens, innovation project specialist for the school system.
Behrens is excited about the technology’s potential to reach students who might not be engaged by just typing code into a computer.
“I just love their whole approach,” he said. “Some kids love sitting at a desk, but others really need to get up and move and interact with the work they’re absorbing.”
As Leeming and her team head toward the October release of the first Splats, they are thinking about how to create curriculums to help teachers work the toys into their classes. They also hope to launch an online community where children can share the games they’ve created. And the developers have started thinking about new products.
“This is just the very beginning,” Leeming said. “We’re going to be experimenting with more unruly things.”
Sarah Shemkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.