Children should learn to code aged three, says Valeria Leonardi, COO at Primo Toys

Amelia Heathman
The Primo Toys team with Cubetto, its coding toy for children: Primo Toys

Valeria Leonardi wasn’t planning on being a co-founder of a toy start-up but these things just happen when technology is involved.

“I actually tried to become a teacher but I was rejected because I didn’t have GCSEs, despite having an MA and an MBA from two British universities, ” explains Leonardi, who grew up in Rome, Italy.

But what turned out to be the teaching world’s loss became the tech industry’s gain.

Leonardi is one-third of the founding team of Primo Toys, a toy start-up which creates Cubetto, a coding toy aimed at children aged three to six.

It’s unlike any coding device you’ve ever seen: a wooden robot, with no screens, and a control board onto which children place different blocks which will program the robot.

For instance, the green block will move the robot forward, whilst a red block will make it go right.

Children can build up the sequences and make the robot perform, introducing them into the world of coding without them even realising it.

We spoke to Leonardi about how she became involved in Primo Toys and why everyone should learn how to code, particularly young girls.

Primo Toys: Kickstarter campaigns and first stage products

Valeria Leonardi, COO at Primo Toys (Primo Toys )

Leonardi found out about Primo Toys after her daughter, who was five at the time, featured in one of the company’s videos playing an early version of Cubetto. After learning more about Primo and Cubetto, Leonardi wanted to be involved.

“I thought, ‘oh my god, this is amazing,” she says. “It was a chance for me to put two things together, education and business, that I felt really strongly about.”

After meeting Primo Toys’ founders, Filippo Yacob, now CEO, and Matteo Loglio, also Italian, Leonardi came onboard as the third founder of the start-up, in February 2014.

Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength. Its first version of Cubetto was backed by 651 backers on the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter.

The next version of the coding toy was backed by 6,553 backers, who offered a total of $1.5 million to get the toy off the ground, making Cubetto the first crowd-funded educational invention ever on Kickstarter.

“With a product like Cubetto, going on Kickstarter meant getting validation from the end user that you don’t get from an investor,” explains Leonardi.

“And people loved what we were doing. We developed the second product with their feedback, to an extent, because we’d learnt so much from speaking to our first Kickstarter backers.”

Why is coding good for children?

Tech pioneers wax lyrical about the need for good coders, with the likes of Kathyrn Parsons from Decoded and supermodel Karlie Kloss offering their own forms of inspiration for future coders.

But, why should children start from the age of three? Do they need to start quite so early? For Leonardi, it’s about teaching children the crucial skills at a young age.

“Maths and writing have underpinned our civilisation for a long time but new literacies, like computer programming, are becoming just as important. Introducing them at the same age we introduce the other literacies is key.”

That's why Cubetto isn't only for parents who want their child to become a computer programmer or launch their own tech start-up, but for every child.

“Not every person who learns how to read wants to become an author,” says Leonardi. “But we all need those skills to function in this world and then we can choose which direction we want to go in.”

The Cubetto coding toy from Primo Toys (Primo Toys )

And Cubetto isn’t just about coding. Children learn other skills interacting with the robot. Primo Toys regularly releases new maps for children to use, so they can programme their Cubetto in different environments.

As part of the company’s new Kickstarter campaign, Primo Toys has released an African Savannah map, so children can take their robot on a safari adventure.

“Cubetto is about communicating, creativity, storytelling, literacy and all these things together.”

But, the coding aspect is still important, and almost magical to watch.

“When you see the kids completely connect with the robot, they almost make an emotional connection with it because they’re making it come alive by what they’re doing with the board.”

Primo Toys and #CodingGirls

When building the original Cubetto, Primo wanted to make sure it was gender-neutral, so all children would play and learn using the wooden set. “We wanted to make sure boys and girls have the same opportunities, and are given the same keys, to open the same doors.”

That’s why Primo runs an annual #CodingGirls campaign every year to get the message across that access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) should not be divided on gender lines.

This year’s campaign included offering an internship for a young woman at the Primo Toys office in London. “It’s about supporting young women if they need it,” explains Leonardi.

As well, Leonardi uses this approach with her own children. Her daughter, who is 10, regularly attends CoderDojo classes, a global network of free computer programming clubs for young people.

Research says that girls’ interest in STEM subjects drops sharply as they get older, but with initiatives like Primo Toys and CoderDojo, Leonardi hopes this will change.

If we give young people the right opportunities to learn, they will find things like the gender pay gap and the low numbers of women in STEM unacceptable, she says.

“Through this, hopefully, girls won’t start to drop off [in STEM] as they get older because its more competitive or they feel like they’re dumb, because that won’t be the way the world sees it anymore,” explains Leonardi.

In terms of Primo Toys, the company is riding the success wave of Cubetto. But there will be more to come from the start-up.

“We’re focused on 21st Century skills, so we’re exploring what those other skills are and where we want to go next.”