This Cool Toy Might Be the Key to Getting Girls Hooked on Tech

Linkitz hopes to capture girls’ imaginations and get them to learn to program while playing.

(Photo: Linkitz/Facebook)

Jul 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

With the increase in technical jobs growing year after year, there's an immediate need to teach STEM-based skills to children, starting at a young age. The hope is that through early mastery, kids will stick with these technical fields in adulthood. That's especially true for girls. Only one-fourth of college students majoring in a STEM subject are women, and just 24 percent of the STEM workforce is female.

The creators of Linkitz, one of a brand-new breed of interactive toys that not only entertain but also expose kids to the world of programming and technology, hope to change that.

The collaborative toy goes beyond the Mr. Potato Heads and Lite-Brites of yesteryear. Lyssa Neel, cofounder and CEO of Linkitz, earned a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT and conceptualized a wearable technology toy that would encourage kids, particularly girls, to learn the basics of engineering and programming in ways that come naturally to them.

"We wanted to design a product that captured girls' imaginations while they were little and let them explore technology in a playful way, with the hope that by the time they get to middle school, they'd carry this interest and skill set forward,” says Neel.

She and her team realized that if girls were going to want to use the toy, it had to appeal to the way girls naturally enjoy playing. "There are lots of exploratory engineering toys out there that are suitable for kids of both genders, and I bought most of them for my three daughters. But they were really designed for solitary play or exploration guided by an adult," Neel says. "My girls wanted to play with their friends, so a key concept behind Linkitz is social play and face-to-face games."

The modular light-up shapes of the toy can be linked together to create customized interactions that blink and buzz. Different links have different capabilities, such as motion or sound sensing. Attaching the links changes the behavior of the other links in the unit as a whole.

If a girl is a budding fashionista, the links can be connected and worn in different ways—as bracelets or pendants or clipped to a belt or backpack. If you remember trading baseball cards, pogs, or friendship bracelets as a kid, this gadget gives a whole new meaning to the world of trading. Linkitz allows kids to express themselves in unusual and technical ways.

The toy is still in its prototype development stage, but the concept won first place in Canada's N100 Startup Competition, and the team received $100,000 to finalize the prototype and bring Linkitz to market. They are moving full steam ahead with product plans and have even moved to Shenzhen, China to be part of a hardware accelerator program called HAXLR8R, which teaches them about toy manufacturing on a mass scale.

Although Linkitz is primarily a hardware-centric toy, it also provides software that uses simple visual programming blocks and audio instructions for the youngest users. The kid-friendly approach to tech ensures that children don't have to have previous programming knowledge to play with it.

"[Linkitz] will do fun things right out of the box, but if you do explore the software, it rewards you by letting you add new functionality," Neel explains. "We also plan to make a more sophisticated programming interface available, for kids at the older end of the range who might really get into customizing their wearables."