This story is from the 2019 Access FYI: FedEx Young Innovators List. Explore more from this issue
Bryanne Leeming posing for photo

When Computer Code Turns Into Play

Children design their own activities with this educational toy.

Bryanne Leeming posing for photo

These days, most 5-year-olds can work a smartphone or tablet as well as their parents. And while this early encounter with technology may bode well for a future science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career, it keeps children sitting still, isolated and glued to a screen.

Kids playing with technologyUnruly Splats programmable floor tiles

Bryanne Leeming created Unruly Studios to change that. The Boston-based start-up’s innovation, a STEM toy called Unruly Splats (often simply called Splats), combines programmable floor tiles that light up and make sounds. It lets kids have fun — while learning how to code. How, exactly? Kids control the Bluetooth-activated, battery-operated tiles with a smartphone or tablet and pick up the basics of coding while designing a virtually unlimited number of games, including relay races, musical chairs and dance routines.

Leeming came up with the idea when she realized tech toys should be designed to conform to a child’s natural pattern of play — not the other way around. Following years of babysitting, she’d watched her charges become less active and more structured in their play. Also a lifelong athlete, she began to wonder why children’s toys seemed to lean toward either activity or learning. She thought, why couldn’t it be both?

With an undergrad degree in programming and job experience in tech and product development under her belt, Leeming embarked on an MBA at Babson College, where she participated in the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab venture accelerator. (Read about another Babson WIN Lab entrepreneur who won a seat sponsored by FedEx — event planner and designer Nathalie Cadet-James.) From there, she launched a Kickstarter campaign and a limited product release in 2017, and was selected to join the AT&T Aspire Accelerator for education-tech (ed-tech) start-ups in 2018. Leeming anticipates a full-scale Splats launch later in 2019.

The Unruly Studios team feels good heading into this important phase, especially now that they’ve been able to test Splats with more than 3,000 children, parents and educators. The stories of children’s coding endeavors never cease to amaze them. “A sixth grader created a game that taught preschoolers about colors, numbers and animal sounds,” Leeming told Inc. magazine late last year. “Another child used Splats to ‘protect’ his bedroom. He set a passcode, and anyone who came to his door had to guess it before entering. These uses give you a glimpse into the mind of a kid. Children are way more creative than we are.”

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