Ever since the tech world collectively decided that programming is the essential skill all kids ought to learn, perhaps even before they learn to read, the market has been saturated with tablet apps aimed at raising the next Zuckerburg.  

Bay Area startup Play-i is taking another approach. The company is literally making physical robots to encourage tangible play with technology. 

See also: How To Raise The Next Zuckerberg: 6 Coding Apps For Kids

“Young children learn from physical interaction,” said Akhil Anumolu, Play-i’s marketing manager. “Why not teach them to program using physical objects?”

“One robot per child,” is Play-i’s slogan, but that’s not intended to bring visions of a child-sized robot army to mind. The current prototype is about the size of a radio-controlled toy car and comes with many interchangeable (but choke-proof) parts. 

By connecting one of the pieces of the robot to another, kids can cause the robot to repeat its actions infinitely and act out a loop. Other parts illustrate concepts like functions and if/then statements. An app is also in the works so that kids can manipulate the robot using a tablet or computer. 

“We’re not just going to use a screen, there are already tons of apps that do that,” said Anumolu. “We’re going to change the way kids are going to learn programming.”

It’s a tall order for a product that doesn’t exist yet, or even have a finalized prototype. But the startups’ pedigreed quartet of founders—all formerly high-ranking employees at Google, Apple, Symantec, and Frog Design—lends it credibility. Play-i has already received $1 million in seed funding from Madrona Ventures and Google Ventures.

As the children of the founders’ friends and families test the robot, it continues to change slightly in scope. Right now, Anumolu estimates the finished product will cost less than $100 and be marketed at children ages five to 12. 

“Their imaginations are actually what’s helping us build this product,” he said. “We’ve seen kids make it into a dragon and program it to attack toy houses, and we’ve seen other kids make it into a pet and teach it to follow them around.”

Play-i’s robot prototype will be finalized by August, and released to the world in the form of a Kickstarter in mid-September. And after that, a nation of mass produced robots, one per child? That’s just the half of it. 

“It’s not just that we want to make a great product,” said Anomolu. “We also want to push for the U.S. education system to start teaching this in school. Whether they use our product or just in general, computer science is something we believe is necessary.”

Photo by JD Hancock