Wow, educational toys have changed a lot since I was a kid. I remember inserting floppy disks (!) into a computer in order to play classic games like “Number Munchers” and “The Oregon Trail”. I learned very quickly that “Dog” was not a day of the week, and that it was very easy to die of wasting diseases in the western US in the 19th century.
Flash forward to today, where the “Internet of Things” and the next tech gadget rule the day. As the world becomes more and more digitally inclined, parents and teachers alike want toys that teach kids computer-and technology-related skills, both for their future employability and for being a citizen in a society built on 1’s and 0’s.
One emerging trend is toys that teach kids how to write computer programming code. Coding is becoming essential knowledge because the world runs on computers, and computers themselves run on code. As a person with a degree in a STEM field, I had to learn how to code later in life, and it was a miserably long learning curve (even if it’s one of my favorite things to do now). So, naturally, these coding toys aimed at kids piqued my interest.
I (with the help of some curious kids and parents) investigated 21 toys and games (covering an age range from 3 years old to adulthood) that claim to teach coding skills in fun and novel ways. To check out our experiences with a wide variety of robots and board games (arranged in increasing age appropriateness), read on!
(For additional resources on coding for kids, check this site out.)
1. A coding caterpillar for the littlest programmers
Ages: 3-8 years old
Power: 4 AA batteries
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once the basics are established and the toy is assembled
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations
How it works: This is coding at its most basic. The Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar has a motorized, caterpillar-shaped head, and kids can make it move in different directions or complete certain actions by adding a variety of pieces to the body of the Code-a-Pillar. Changing the order of the body parts changes the Code-a-Pillar’s routine.
Each command module lights up as the Code-a-Pillar completes that action, often while catchy music plays. Once the sequence is complete, and the Code-a-Pillar has wiggled all over your living room, all of the modules light up, and a “success” music clip plays.
The different actions and motions are “move forward”, “turn left”, “turn right”, and “play music”. Expansion packs include additional actions like “play sleepy music” and “play excited music”.
Our experience: The Code-a-Pillar is just so adorable. The different Code-a-Pillar body parts are big, colorful, and kid-friendly. Children just getting the hang of hand-eye coordination and with minimal hand strength may need some help from parents with assembly, but once the Code-a-Pillar is all put together, it’s just a push-and-play experience from there.
The music that accompanies the Code-a-Pillar is pretty loud, so be sure to not blast it right next to sensitive little ears. The Code-a-Pillar motors right along on very thin carpet, but does best on hard floor surfaces.
For more advanced playing, the Code-a-Pillar also comes with “Start” and “Finish” disks at which kids can aim the Code-a-pillar. This requires a bit more experimentation (and a longer attention span) because it’s not immediately apparent how much distance the Code-a-Pillar covers in a given action.
The bottom line: The Code-a-Pillar is lots of fun for families with curious toddlers and plenty of open floor space.
2. A cute wooden robot for younger kids
Ages: 3+ years old
Power: 6 AA batteries
Parental involvement needed: Some for teaching the basics and beyond the basics, some for reading the storybook if a kid is too young to read
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, functions, function calls
How it works: The Cubetto playset has four main components:
- Cubetto, a small wooden robot
- Command tiles and control box
- A fabric playmat with a grid of Cubetto’s world
- A storybook describing Cubetto's adventures on the grid squares of the playmat
After pairing Cubetto and the control box, commands are routed to Cubetto by placing command tiles in a certain order on the control box, and then pressing the large blue button. Cubetto then navigates the grid on the playmat following the commands on the control board.
The last row on the control board is reserved for defining a function, which is a sequence of actions that can be called repeatedly from the main control board without having to add tiles for that sequence manually each time. Kids use the tiles to guide Cubetto through the adventures mentioned in the storybook.
The different tiles represent “move forward”, “turn left”, “turn right”, and “function call”. Expansion packs include more “function call” tiles, “opposite” and “random” tiles, and additional playmats and storybooks.
Our experience: I have never wanted to hug a small wooden box with a smile on it before, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. From the basic shapes of the tiles to the bright colors on the playmat, Cubetto is perfect for little kids. The storybook is full of neat illustrations and directions to help Cubetto get to his next destination, but thanks to the little cartoon drawings of the start and end grid squares, even kids who can’t yet read can still follow along.
Cubetto moves slowly and quietly from one grid square to the next, making it easy for small children to track the movement. The playmat is fairly stiff fabric, and we recommend placing it on a hard floor surface for optimal Cubetto movement.
Our testers reported that the kids needed a lot of instruction and guidance up front, but that once they got going, Cubetto was "a very rich experience." The storybook aspect really lends a sense of urgency to the toy, making kids really want to help Cubetto reach its destination.
One potential difficulty parents may have with this toy (and any other robot aimed at toddlers) is teaching their young children the concept of relative directions. The fact that "right" and "left" depend on which way the robot is facing may take a bit of explanation from parents.
The bottom line: Cubetto is an awesome copilot on your kid's journey to becoming a junior programmer.
3. A screen-free card game perfect for those who love turtles with laser beams on their backs
Ages: 4+ years old
Parental involvement needed: Moderate; some for teaching the basics and beyond the basics, some to actually move the game pieces
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, functions, function calls
How it works: Robot Turtles is a board game that beautifully demonstrates the basics of coding. Each player is given a "robot turtle" tile, which depicts a turtle with a laser mounted on its back (obviously). Using cards representing motions or actions, the colorful turtles must navigate the gridded game board to find the jewel at the center of the board.
Up to four turtles can play the game at the same time; however, the Robot Turtles instruction manual advocates for collaboration (and cheering) rather than competition between players.
The different cards represent "forward", "turn left", "turn right", "laser beam", and "function call". The different obstacles include "crates" (which can be pushed, but not pulled), "ice castles" (which can be melted via laser beam), and "stone castles" (which are permanent, immovable obstacles).
One key part of this game is that an adult or an older kid must be on hand to set up the obstacle course for the turtles, as well as to move the turtles according to the cards put down by the kids. I suspect that the adults, rather than the younger participants, are asked to actually move the turtle tiles because kids may not admit to a card mistake that has them facing a stone castle, rather than the jewel.
At any point while the adult is moving a player's turtle, that player is allowed to slap the "bug" tile, and shout "Bug!" if they spot an error in their card sequence, and get a chance to redo their turtle's motion on that turn. I wish coding bugs would make themselves as obvious in real life.
Our experience: Robot Turtles is a really neat, screen-free experience for both parents and kids. This game involves moderate parental involvement, so we definitely recommend saving Robot Turtles for family game night, or other instances where parents can devote their full attention to playing this game with their kids.
One cool part about Robot Turtles is that multiple kids can play at the same time, and it's very easy to set different turtles up with obstacle levels of varying difficulty on the same board. This way, both younger and older children can be challenged while playing the same game.
Also, because of the instant feedback between playing the movement/action cards and seeing the turtle move through the obstacle course, this game is a great way to see that "ah-ha!" epiphany moment on a kid's face when they understand how the cards actually drive the robot turtles through the maze.
The stated age range of 4+ is correct; while all kids will love learning the basics and hearing adults make hilarious turtle noises, older children or more advanced coders may soon surpass the higher levels of Robot Turtles, and may want to move on to more complex methods of coding games and toys.
The bottom line: Robot Turtles is a fun way for small children and parents to play together while learning the basics of computer programming.
4. A high tech robot that can climb a white-board
Ages: Ages 4+
App: Root Coding app (iOS/not yet available on Android)
Subscription service: Root Academy, $4.99 per month, first month’s subscription free
Power: Internal battery and charger included, connected via Bluetooth
Parental involvement needed: moderate for identifying the robot’s various sensors and coding basics, minimal once user is familiar with Root and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, conditional statements, wait for input, loops, functions
How it works: Using Root Robotic’s block coding system and extremely thorough coding lessons, children as young as four years old can start driving and drawing with this robot.
Our experience: Root is a robot with a streamlined interface that appeals to young children and an extremely customizable robotics experience that appeals to even the most experienced of coders.
The deceptively simple-looking robot has bumper sensors, touch sensors, light sensors, a surface sensor (to prevent Root from falling off of any edges) and a color sensor. My italicizing of the last four words in that sentence indicate my sheer incredulity at how many sensors Root Robotics was able to pack into this robot.
Even beyond the sensors, Root is also able to raise and lower a marker (placed in a hole in the middle of the robot) or a marker eraser on command so that Root can draw on the included foldable whiteboard grid, and ostensibly clean up after itself. More on that later.
Of course, all of the sensors and extra features in the world aren’t any fun if you can’t do anything with them. This is where the Root Coding app comes in. After connecting over Bluetooth and naming your robot (mine was named Banjo, obviously), the coding adventure begins. The app has three modules: Learn, Explore, and Code.
“Explore” is a place where Root Robotics can showcase new and exciting projects. Users will find freestyle coding in the “Code” module, and structured lessons in the “Learn” module. If you jump straight to the “Code” module, you may be surprised by how few code blocks there are, but never fear, the level of customizability in each individual code block is nearly overwhelming.
Making Root’s two bumper sensors respond separately is one thing.
You can also control Root’s individual wheel speeds.
When you make Root sing a song, you get to pick the octave, musical note, and note duration for each tone. That's pretty hardcore.
It’s in the “Learn” section where kids find out about the frankly staggering number of ways they can alter each code block to make Root do everything from have a dance party to navigate an obstacle course to drawing an arc on the whiteboard grid.
As for the lessons themselves, I was surprised by how slowly they progressed until I remembered that this app is aimed at teaching four-year-olds how to code; it’s very appropriate for young children just learning the fundamentals of programming.
One important point to note is that Root Robotics is part of a subscription service; you can only access the first few lessons in the “Learn” module without joining Root Academy, which costs $4.99 per month. Only through Root Academy can you unlock further lessons for Root. It’s also a good way to stay updated as to new code releases; you can just be informed via the app and start using new code right away.
As they progress further in the lessons, though, you will really come to appreciate the area where you can test out your code in the app, and not have it run before you’ve checked it thoroughly. This is especially important when kids are doing art endeavors with Root. Parents will appreciate kids finding and fixing any mistakes before actually running the code, and having Root end up drawing on the dining room floor, rather than the whiteboard grid.
The whiteboard grid itself is lightweight and foldable. Complete with reusable cling stickers (the particular colors of which Root can sense as it drives over them with its color sensor), both Root and the whiteboard grid are easily decorated and highly portable. I will say that the onboard marker eraser isn’t especially effective on the whiteboard grid. Be sure to wipe away any marker residue that Root misses with the included cloth.
The eraser is, however, much more effective when Root is running on a mounted whiteboard. Yes, that’s right, with a strong magnet, Root can defy gravity and actually move around on a metal-framed whiteboard mounted on your wall.
Root can do so many amazing things, but I did have a couple of minor complaints. Both the robot and the app were a bit buggy at times; the first time I turned Root on, it didn’t sing its introductory song on demand. In the app, the bar with the code blocks would sometimes disappear, and coding blocks would occasionally get stranded in the middle of the code space and not react to finger taps. These problems were all easy solved by rebooting both the robot and the app.
One other minor quibbles involve the fact that, instead of just having each program finish running by itself, you have to manually hit the “stop” button on your codes after you run them. If you forget to do so, you can feel the same guilt I felt after Root kept flashing a purple light for the 10 minutes it took for me to make changes to my project, look up, and realize that Root was still doing a light show.
The bottom line: The Root Robotics is an easy and fun way for young children to learn how to code, yet it’s complex enough that it can keep older kids and parents interested as well. With Root, the possibilities are literally endless. Be aware that you can’t progress very far in the “Learn” module without the Root Academy subscription service before you buy Root Robotics.
5. A robot that can keep up with your kid's action figures
Ages: 4+ years old
Power: 3 AAA batteries
Parental involvement needed: Minimal for non-coding play, moderate for coding play in app
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, macros
While primarily driven by activities via the Coji app, the app-free experience may be the best way for toddlers to play with Elmoji. Using the buttons on the left and right hand sides of Elmoji's head, children can scroll through a slew of emojis, then push down on Elmoji's head to select one. Elmoji, as though in a game of Charades, promptly acts out that emoji to the best of its ability. For example, activating the "roller coaster" emoji causes Elmoji to dance erratically while playing a sound clip of screaming people.
For older kids, the "Free Play" part of the Coji app offers a way for users to write code for Elmoji and make it perform a sequence of motions or display certain emojis. Users tap to add motions and emojis, and after being paired with a device via Bluetooth, Elmoji receives and enacts the code from the app.
For a bigger challenge, in the "Command Center" part of the app, kids can actually code and upload macros (mini-programs) into Elmoji, so that even if Elmoji isn't currently connected to the app, it can still perform the actions and emojis in that macro sequence.
The six modules in the Coji app are "Free Play", "Command Center", "Macro Maze" (uses emojis, motions, and macros to navigate a maze), "Sequence Says" (a game like "Simon Says", but with emojis), "Loop Run" (a game like Super Mario Brothers, but you push Elmoji's head down to jump), and "Drive" (controlling Elmoji's motions and emojis manually).
The Elmoji app is a simpler version of the Coji app, and is meant for younger children; the emojis are Sesame Street flavored, rather than just normal emojis.
The modules in the Elmoji app include "Free Play", "Drive Mode", "Memory Match", and "Mystery Mazes", which are simpler versions of the "Free Play", "Drive", "Sequence Says", and "Macro Maze" modules in the Coji app, and "Music Maker", where kids can tap on colorful xylophone keys to play music through Elmoji.
Our experience: Elmoji is fast. We recommend playing with Elmoji on the floor, since otherwise, Elmoji tends to take headers off of table edges with terrifying regularity.
The fact that mini-programs can be uploaded into Elmoji is very cool, and is sure to help kids understand the time-saving aspect of macros (calling on a set of actions repeatedly vs. coding those actions in manually over and over again).
While the Elmoji robot is the big selling point, the fact that the Coji app can be used without Elmoji is a nice benefit for parents, who don't have to worry about forgetting to bring Elmoji everywhere.
The bottom line: Both Elmoji and the Coji app will make for hours of unintentional learning for kids old and young alike.
6. A toy that is an art project and a robot at the same time
Ages: 4-7 years old
Power: 4 AA batteries
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once the barcode process is established and the meanings of some of the logical expressions are explained
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, counting loops, conditional statements, wait for input
How it works: KIBO is a robot who operates on a combination of sensors and barcode inputs.
To make KIBO follow a sequence of actions, kids build a program by assembling a line of large, kid-friendly wooden blocks, each of which has a different barcode on it. Each block line must start with the "Begin" block, and finish with the "End" block, which tells KIBO's barcode reader to start and stop looking for additional barcode inputs, respectively.
Then, children flash KIBO's barcode reader over each block in the order they want the actions performed, and KIBO chirps every time a barcode is successfully read. After placing KIBO on the floor, press the "Go" button, and let the fun begin!
KIBO comes in four different "kits", which are designed for smaller/larger groups of kids and less/more complex sensors and actions. Basic movement blocks include "forward", "backward", "turn left", "turn right", "shake", and "repeat". The basic modules are a light sensor, a sound sensor, a distance sensor, and a lightbulb. To see all of the sensors and movements in each KIBO kit, click here.
Children not as inclined to explore the coding aspect can contribute to KIBO's antics artistically; while in KIBO 21 (the most complex kit), there's a stage and whiteboard included for decorating purposes, anyone can easily attach drawings or pipe cleaner creations to KIBO at any time.
Our experience: Mitch Roseberg, Co-founder of KinderLab Robotics (the makers of KIBO), told me that the motivation behind creating KIBO was to encourage all kids to become STEM-literate by making robotics and programming universally accessible and fun: "KIBO is the only robot kit on the market that enables young kids to build, code, decorate, and run a robot—with no screens, keyboards, or help from adults." With its simple materials, straightforward coding process, and emphasis on imagination and art, KIBO is meant to appeal to all kids, including those that identify as "STEM-oriented", and those that do not. Our testers couldn't help but agree.
It takes only seconds to assemble KIBO, and it only gets easier and more fun from there. The ubiquity of barcodes means that most kids will probably already know how they work. KIBO's barcode reader is wide, though, so it may take a bit of practice and some help from parents before little ones can aim and record the motion they want without accidentally scanning another barcode nearby.
The bottom line: Whether they prefer drawing or playing with numbers, every kid can find something fun to do with KIBO.
Update: The creators of KIBO have recently released a series of extension kits, including a marker set (for drawing with KIBO), a LEGO kit, a literacy kit, and a sound kit.
7. A whole environment of fun coding games on your tablet
Ages: Ages 5-12
Required: Osmo iPad Base
Parental involvement needed: minimal once the iPad is installed in the base and each coding block’s purpose is established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, functions, loops
How it works: Using a clever mirror system, Osmo turns your iPad into an interface where kids play games that are so much fun that they don’t even realize they’re learning about programming.
Our experience: I just loved the Osmo game and block system. Once you mount your iPad in the base, place the mirror over the iPad’s camera, and put a piece of blank white paper in front of the base, you’re ready to jump right into the expansive Osmo ecosystem.
In Osmo Newton, anything you draw or insert into the view of the camera can be used as a deflector to bounce balls in certain directions to hit a target. In Osmo Masterpiece, you can project and scale an image onto the piece of paper that allows your kids to trace and draw any picture they like. Osmo Masterpiece was able to whip even my shaky drawing skills into shape enough to draw a delightful witch.
I would recommend starting kids out with these block-less apps first; I found the whole experience with the camera/mirror very disorienting at first, and it took me a while to figure out how the whole thing worked. Once I figured it out, though, it was easy to see how ingenious it is, and how it would work when the coding blocks were involved.
Osmo really shines with its coding-related games. These games require you to download additional apps and purchase the coding blocks related to a given app. While there is a large degree of overlap with coding blocks between different games/apps, certain blocks special to each game might prevent children from getting the full effect of the lessons in a specific app if they are missing.
The coding blocks are both incredibly powerful and incredibly easy to use. Each block is made of kid-friendly, colorful plastic. Most of the blocks have a disk with an arrow embedded into it; you can easily rotate the arrow to point in any of the four cardinal directions. The blocks snap together magnetically, and have numerical add-ons that allow you to code in an action up to five times in a row, without needing five extra coding blocks. With these blocks, you can explore a world made of forests and caverns (in Osmo Coding Awbie), or make hilarious and catchy music (in Osmo Coding Jam).
In Osmo Coding Awbie, Awbie is an adorable creature who has to rebuild its home after a natural disaster. Awbie buys the materials to build itself a new home and a new life by collecting strawberries and pies (the primary currency of Awbie’s homeland), opening treasure chests, and chasing bunnies.
Kids progress through Awbie’s adventures in the wild by using the coding blocks to navigate Awbie through a gridded environment. The Osmo Coding Awbie app has very clear and easy-to-follow lessons about how the blocks work (including the arrow rotation on each block), and what the purpose of each block is.
There are four major types of blocks: they roughly translate into “forward”, “jump”, “grab”, and “loop”. Blocks special to the Osmo Coding Awbie set include the “sparkle” (which is like a special bonus round), and “alert”. Lastly, the Osmo Coding Awbie requires a special block with a “play” button that actually tells Awbie to start moving through the latest code block. If your child doesn’t get the code quite right, the stakes are low; Awbie is simply sent back to its initial position, and your kid gets to try until he or she gets it right.
Coding with Awbie was so much fun; I had a ton of fun discovering the characters that live in the forest with Awbie and collecting tons (and tons) of strawberries along the way. In addition to Awbie’s usual adventures, there are bonus levels (where you collect pies made by bunnies) and Awbie’s plot of land, where you can plant (and reap the future benefits of) strawberry plants and buy Awbie new things to help Awbie rebuild its home. Osmo Coding Awbie is great for coders who are just starting out and younger children; older kids with some programming experience may find it a bit too easy.
Osmo Coding Jam is less adventure and more musical discovery. In this app, kids are tasked with building code to play certain musical cues in a particular order. Like Osmo Coding Awbie, Osmo Coding Jam takes the user through simple lessons that illustrate the purpose of each block. Some of the blocks in the Osmo Coding Jam, while identical to those in Osmo Coding Awbie, have different meanings.
In Osmo Coding Jam, each lesson or “jam session” starts out with a funny character (an astronaut, a mad scientist, a Neanderthal, etc.) in the center of the screen, surrounded by different aspects of their environments (a planet, a table of beakers, a fire pit, etc.), arranged in three concentric circles, each of which is divided into four parts; each quadrant of each circle corresponds to a specific sound bite.
In this way, the “grab”, “forward”, and “jump” blocks in Osmo Coding Awbie are repurposed in the Osmo Coding Jam into “inner circle”, “middle circle”, and “outer circle”, and the arrow directions on each of these three types of blocks indicate which quadrant of each circle is played. The Osmo Coding Jam blocks also include a “silent” block, a “loop” block, and a few different “function” blocks, which have a certain sequence built in.
Osmo Coding Jam is divided into two sections:
• “Lessons”, where kids learn how each block functions by building specific songs with specific characters, and
• “Studio”, where kids put what they’ve learned to the test, and create their own music by building their own coding sequences with a variety of characters
You can only get so far in the Lessons (in which you garner hearts for completing a given lesson) before you have to spend time in the Studio to get more hearts in order to unlock more Lessons. As you get further in the Lessons, you unlock more characters, each of which has its own sound effects and tone.
Osmo Coding Jam was a blast. Each new character always made me laugh (my favorites were the grim reaper and the chemist), and I was pleased by how well musical sequences that seemed random during the coding stage came together when combined with the sound bites from other characters. The music is surprisingly catchy! Our test family reported that spontaneous dance parties would break out when the kids starting playing their own music compilations.
In general, the Osmo coding blocks come in stackable storage containers that make it easy to take Osmo on the go. Admittedly, kids might not be able to play with Osmo in the back of the car; you really need a steady, flat surface covered with a piece of white printer paper (or a white board similar to the one that comes with the Osmo Monster Game) for kids to be able to play with Osmo away from home.
One thing that might take some getting used to is fact that between every lesson in Osmo Coding Jam or every set of moves in Osmo Coding Awbie, the white piece of paper has to be totally cleared of coding blocks; the view of the mirrored camera is about as wide as the piece of paper, so coding blocks that have been nudged aside, but are still on the piece of paper will still be read by the iPad. To avoid confusion, get into the habit of completely removing the coding blocks each time a coding block sequence is correctly deployed.
Parents will enjoy this bit of information: Osmo will replace any lost or damaged coding blocks for free, as long it’s within the first 90 days after purchase. I personally found the blocks to be pretty durable, but I can imagine how easy it would be to lose the blocks if they’re not kept in their storage boxes.
Additionally, the Osmo universe is huge; there really is something for everyone. While individual sets need to be purchased, the apps are free.
The bottom line: The Osmo coding games are an elegant add-on to your iPad. With the coding blocks, your kid will be having a blast (and also learning how to code) in no time.
8. A funny card game for those who like pirates (and potatoes)
Ages: Ages 6+
Parental involvement needed: Moderate, for initial setup and learning/applying game rules
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, conditional statements, logical operators
How it works: Players raise and deploy pirate potato armies against one another with strategically played attack cards such as “Roast” and “Fry”. These attack cards are made much more devastating by playing them in conjunction with ‘while’ loops or cards with other logical operators. The last potato army still standing is the winner!
Our experience: Potato Pirates is a card game whose box hits the nail on the head with the phrase “Coding with carbs”. Between the adorable artwork on the cards, the funny commentary in the manual, and the soft fuzzballs meant to represent the pirate crewmates, this game is a lot of fun for people of all ages.
We really recommend that an adult or a coding-savvy teenager take the time to read and absorb the different card functions and game rules; there are enough moving parts to this card game that trying to pick it up on the fly will probably not work. Additionally, playing this game with only a few players can result in very short games (as some of the cards are especially devastating when the damage can’t be spread around and it is, at times, not clear how someone would rebuild a crew after it’s been attacked); short games mean that there is not really enough time for children to learn or appreciate the coding concepts. This game is best played with multiple kids who are in varying stages of understanding coding logic.
On a given turn, a player can prepare an attack (while a ship is “anchored”), or attack neighboring ships in hopes of killing all the potatoes aboard and sinking the ship down to Davy Jones’ locker. Attacks are prepared by combining damage cards, like “Roast”, “Fry”, and “Mash”, with control cards, such as “For 2 times” and “While a ship has more than 5 potatoes on board”. When ships are attacked, each ship takes damage in the form of removing potato fuzzballs from their associated ships.
We found that kids generally had few problems with the simple control cards, but needed a lot of coaching and practice with the more complicated control cards, especially in attacks where more than one control card is played. In that case, attacks are calculated using loops inside loops, and both damage and player confusion can grow quickly.
In addition to control and damage cards, there are cards that players can use outside of their turn, which can offset some of the idle time waiting for kids to take their turns, but can also add to overall chaos. Other fun aspects, such as saluting a person who plays a “Potato King” card, help with keeping those with short attention spans focused on the pirate spud fun.
The potato fuzzballs come in a cloth sack that should prevent you from losing them, but don’t be surprised if a few go missing, as throwing the fuzzballs at other players is doubtlessly a common outcome in the case if potato pirate crews are decimated.
The bottom line: Once your kids master this potato-themed card game, applying the same principles to computer coding will be a breeze.
9. A robot that will keep your kids chasing after it
Ages: Ages 6+
Power: charged via USB, connected via Bluetooth
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once Dash is connected and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, functions, function calls, conditional statements, wait for input, variables, counting loops
How it works: Dash is a delightful robot who teaches kids coding skills in three different apps: Dash Path, Dash Wonder, and Dash Blockly. These three apps have varying levels of complexity so that Dash is a fun experience for kids at different ages and coding experience levels.
Dash Path is ideal for children who are a bit too young to venture into coding concepts. Kids can draw freestyle paths for Dash to follow in a variety of settings, from a farm, to a cityscape, to a plain grid. Our test family agreed that younger kids will really enjoy driving Dash around “like a racecar”. For more challenging paths, you can also add a number of animal, vehicle, and natural noises and motions for Dash to act out along the way.
Dash Wonder is a bit more advanced, and has users building coding programs visually, by adding coding components, and then drawing line connections between the components to illustrate the order of operations.
Dash Blockly is the most complex of the three apps; kids can build coding programs in a method similar to actual coding practices—they can build programs by assembling different coding “blocks” with various themes (actions, sounds, functions, etc.).
The Dash robot itself can also be modified with a number of accessories, including a xylophone, “learn to code” cards, a catapult launcher, and a sketch kit. With the sketch kit, both markers and a large white-board-like sketch mat are required.
Our experience: Dash is a robot whose adventures evolve in tandem with your kid’s coding abilities, and provides him or her with plenty of laughs and fun along the way.
Each of the three apps involves a set of really helpful tutorials to help get your kid up and running. We would recommend that an adult work through the first few lessons in each app, just so that the adult can get a feel for the logic behind Dash, and can help the little ones if they come up against a concept they can’t grasp by themselves.
Dash’s vast library of motions, behaviors, and sounds is sure to delight coders both old and young. Who could resist watching Dash flail about in a tornado, and then promptly stop and let out a very earnest cat meow?
As with all robots aimed at kids, one key aspect that may be difficult to convey is the concept of relative direction. This is especially true for Dash, who can look left, right, up, and down, turn left and right by varying degrees, and move in all directions. A combination of some or all of these motions and actions may leave children feeling confused when Dash doesn’t exactly head in the direction they’d expect, but that’s part of the learning process.
We also had a lot of fun testing out the catapult and the sketch kit. With any of Dash’s accessories, be very sure that the attachments, which just snap onto Dash’s sides, are in the correct orientation indicated in the directions. Our test family had a bit of trouble getting the catapult attachment to sit exactly right, and experienced many failed ball launches as a result, but finally getting it right proved very satisfactory.
The sketch kit attachment (where you place a marker on Dash, and send Dash on its way on the sketch mat) is a bit more intuitive, but it took us a few tries to get the marker in correctly so that it was actually drawing along the sketch mat. As for the sketch mat, make sure that it’s on a surface from which it is easy to remove dry-erase markers.
Our test family loved that there were tons of different ways to play with Dash, with interesting and fun challenges for both younger and older children. In particular, playing “Marco Polo” with Dash, who was using the kids’ own recorded voices to say the titular phrase, resulted in much giggling. In their experience, one of the best parts about Dash is that it is sturdy enough to withstand repeated bonking into walls and other obstacles on the floor.
The bottom line: By itself, Dash is a fun and engaging way to get kids interested in coding; with the range of accessories available, it’s easy to see how Dash could encourage children to find other real-life applications for coding.
10. Four kits that combine circuitry and cardboard
Ages: Ages 6+
Power: Smart Power block with USB charger, connected via Bluetooth
Parental involvement needed: Moderate. Parents or older children may be needed to help with robot assembly and to help kids understand coding basics.
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, conditional statements, wait for input, functions
How it works: By combining circuity, coding, and cardboard, young coders will find that there really is something for everyone in the Makeblock Neuron Explorer kit.
Our experience: The Makeblock kit walks kids through assembling and coding actions for four models—a lightsaber, a ukelele, a car, and a piano. The projects span a range of difficulties, which can either gradually help your kid to gain more coding experience, or can be a good for siblings at different coding experience levels.
Firstly, it is possible to use this kit in a screen-free environment; users can assemble the models, and then arrange the circuit components in a specific order to make the models light up, play sound effects, move around, and more.
However, the kit really comes into its own once you open up the Neuron Makeblock app. After selecting which model you’d like to build, the app walks you, step by step, through the assembly process. Our test family found that some of the assembly directions were not quite as clear as they'd hoped; while the kids could mostly build the models by themselves, adults had to step in and interpret the animations at a couple points during the assembly of the ukelele and the lightsaber so that the kids could finish building the models.
I would recommend having adults on hand during the assembly process in general. While the directions can be a bit confusing at times, the models are also relatively intricate, and little fingers may not have the hand strength to pop in certain components, or get the cardboard to fold just the right way. Once they’re assembled, though, the models do look very cool; the designs on the cardboard are very eye-catching.
One huge benefit of the cardboard model pieces is that they can be disassembled easily, and snapped back into their flat holders for easy storage and they can be rebuilt and unmade again and again. Just be sure that you don’t try to force or pull the cardboard tabs too much, since that could cause the piece to bend or tear.
Once assembled, the coding aspect comes into play. The Makeblock kit includes a wide variety of circuitry components, including an LED panel and light strip (vital for the car and the lightsaber, respectively), two motor drivers, a ranging sensor, and light sensor, a temperature sensor, a knob, and more. The circuit components are large, colorful, durable, and snap together magnetically for easy assembly.
The app teaches burgeoning coders to make the most out of these circuitry components by walking users through individual lessons that demonstrate how each component works, how it relates to the coding units on the screen, and how to customize each coding unit to accomplish a goal.
While the coding environment may be fairly intuitive for adults or for more advanced coders, before trying out the coding with younger kids and newer coders, I would recommend navigating to the Help section and reading the detailed instructions for the coding elements (under “Tutorial”) and the circuitry components (“The Creative Lab Kit Instruction”; these are the instructions that come with the kit).
Each coding lesson is accompanied by a little video that is incredibly helpful, in that it shows users how the coding elements connect up to the model’s actions and reactions. However, it is impossible to actually close out of the video once you’re done with it, and it can block the screen, preventing you from seeing all of the different coding elements. While you can hit the zoom out button to see it all more easily, it is then more difficult to see the details of each coding element.
At times, the actual mechanics of assembling a chunk of code are discovered through trial and error; while I liked how I could add more blocks to a code by tapping on the relevant circuitry element on the screen, and how easily it would connect up to existing code elements, I never did figure out how to delete a coding element from the coding window, meaning that there were extraneous coding elements cluttering up and already cluttered screen.
Those issues aside, I had a lot of fun making the “Explorer” car move towards and away from my hand while making funny faces on the LED panel.
The customizability of each circuit component is very impressive; not only can you manually create your own pictures on the LED panel by turning individual lights on and off with a finger tap, but there is a veritable library of sound clips available, and you can create your own musical composition by selecting musical tones and notes.
Outside of the lessons, in the “Code” area, you can create your own coding projects, in which you can explore how coding elements fit together, as well as discover new coding elements which are not in the coding lessons. For more explanation on what the new coding elements do, be sure to check out the Tutorial in the Help section.
The parents from the test family really loved the fact that the Makeblock Explorer Kit's box makes it easy to store every part of the kit. Since there are a lot of smaller parts that could be lost easily, it makes sense to have a neat place to store the circuit components and the cardboard models; the box's design will make it both fun and easy for your kids to pack up the Makeblock Kit when they're done for the day.
The bottom line: The Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit is a fun, hands-on coding and circuitry kit that kids and parents alike will enjoy.
11. A robot to ease your kids into getting a pet
Ages: 6+ years old
Power: 4 AA batteries
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once FurReal is assembled and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, macros, wait for input
How it works: FurReal Maker Proto Max is a dog-shaped robot who is a solid companion for kids who want to learn to code. After battery installation, FurReal provides assembly instructions on the LCD screen behind the head piece.
Once fully assembled, that screen is where FurReal's expressive (and customizable) eyes are located.
Without the companion app, FurReal is still a responsive robot who makes calm, happy noises when kids pet it on its furred back, or barks a warning when its tail is tweaked. Where FurReal really shines, though, is the coding and programming modules in the companion app.
In the "Code" module, kids use icons to build a sequence of actions, expressions, and sounds for FurReal to follow. After sending the commands over Bluetooth, FurReal acts out that code.
To program in FurReal's responses to physical touches on the robot itself, children use the "Program" module to build and upload macros that dictate how FurReal's different body parts react to being pressed or moved.
Kids can manually control FurReal's movement and reactions in the "Control" module.
The app also offers a few games for children to play without the robot, so the fun can continue on the road as well.
Our experience: The range of activities offered in the app is a perfect fit for kids in the stated 6+ years old age range. One of our younger testers really enjoyed using the "Drive" module to move FurReal around and explore its environment in real time, while the older kid had more fun watching the FurReal respond to inputs from the "Code" module.
The layout of the "Code" module is very intuitive, making it easy to understand that the FurReal can move, make a noise, and change its expression at the same time, and that those motions and expressions can change from one step in the code to the next. It may not be immediately apparent what each coding block does, however, so some experimenting may be required before kids can get FurReal to do exactly what they want.
The "Program" module also presents a nice way to bridge the age gap between siblings: older kids can program the responses of the FurReal (i.e. the reaction after FurReal's nose is pressed five times in a row), and younger kids can try out the programming on the robot itself.
As with most robots that move around, FurReal is better used on a hard floor surface than on a table. Assembly and disassembly of the FurReal is pretty straightforward, and, in fact, FurReal actually responds when body parts are removed or reattached. We also really appreciated the patch of fur on FurReal's back; it encouraged touch and human interaction, rather than just remote programming.
The bottom line: FurReal is a beginning coder's best friend.
12. A high tech robot that can live in the virtual world
Ages: 6+ years old
Power: Internal battery and charger included
Parental involvement needed: Moderate, to initially use and understand the different modules of the Augie app; after that, minimal, once coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, functions, function calls, conditional statements, wait for input, variables, counting loops
How it works: Augie is an app-controlled robot with AR (augmented reality) capabilities.
Augie's intense processing requires a more solid connection between the app and the device, so it uses Wi-Fi, rather than Bluetooth pairing.
There are six modules in the Augie app:
- "Free Play" — the user manually controls Augie's motions and display
- "Trailblazer" — the user draws freeform paths for Augie to follow with his/her finger, and can add emojis and sounds
- "Coding Classroom" — a step-by-step guide for how to code the many varieties of Augie's motions, emojis, and sounds
- "Coding Control Center" — where kids can write code for Augie to act out, based on the lessons from "Coding Classroom"
- "AR Adventures" — game play with Augie involving AR and donuts
- "AR Coding" — a step-by-step guide for how to code the many varieties of Augie's motions, emojis, and sounds in AR
Our experience: Augie is one of the more complicated robots we got to test, despite being aimed at children as young as 5-6 years old. The app is really amazing and a lot of fun, but it comes with no explanation, so it will take an adult some time to familiarize themselves with the layout of the app, the purpose of each module, and the Wi-Fi setup before the kids can dive in. Augie retains and makes the Wi-Fi network information visible, which is convenient for quick reconnection, but might be a security concern for some.
Once Augie is up and running (on a hard, solid floor surface), it's very cool. The "Coding Classroom" module is amazing; it quickly but thoroughly teaches new programmers the uses of Augie's different tricks, as well as conditional statements, variables, and other coding basics.
Augie has a hilarious variety of expressions and sounds; hearing a chicken clucking, immediately followed by jaunty clarinet music, definitely made my day.
The coding units on the screen are neatly colored and categorized; however, it can be difficult at times to see if two coding instructions have actually "clicked" together, which can cause some confusion when Augie stops after only performing a portion of the code.
Because Augie has an AR component, the app uses a lot of battery power and memory; if you're using Augie on a smart phone, be sure you have enough room on your phone memory-wise, a strong Wi-Fi connection, and a charger plugged in if you're using Augie in AR.
The AR itself is a lot of fun. In "AR Adventures", players must ward off small robots with laser beams, which will doubtlessly amuse kids and adults alike. However, maneuvering Augie in AR takes some getting used to, and may require the help of an adult before children can use it on their own.
The bottom line: Augie's intuitive coding module will be a boon to young programmers, but parents or guardians will need to be on hand to get Augie up and running before kids can dive in.
13. A circuit board kit for those who like to build models
Ages: Ages 7+
Power: 6 AA batteries, 1 9-Volt battery, or USB connection to a computer
Parental involvement needed: Moderate, for initial circuit and model building; minimal once circuit basics are established
Coding concepts: Order of operations, wait for input
How it works: Using the different function modules, kids can construct simple circuits on a Lego sheet that do everything from lighting up when a button is pressed to power a lunar eclipse (via a servo/motor module that integrates a model). Simply follow the circuit assembly directions, build the matching models, and complete the exercises described in the manual.
Our experience: While the mPie Microduino Kit is more focused on the circuit-building aspect of STEM, rather than computer coding, it really helps to illustrate the concept of the order of operations. The circuit simply will not work if the modules are assembled (via magnets, which connect with a very satisfying click noise) in the wrong order, a lesson that we found to be a bit too advanced for kids below the stated age range of 7 years old and above.
This kit is great for kids who have a more visual style of learning; the modules are large and colorful, and the models (everything from a flyswatter to an ambulance) really make the lessons tangible. If the ambulance's siren doesn't sound, then it's back to the circuit board. With mPie, burgeoning STEM enthusiasts can make mistakes and learn in a low-stakes environment that makes success (in one case, launching a catapult) taste all the sweeter.
It might be a good idea to have an adult on hand, at least at first; children who've never seen a circuit board before may take a while to cotton on to the idea (although they will doubtlessly recognize the Lego bump pattern of the board where the circuits are mounted). Little fingers also may not have the dexterity to assemble the physical models, which are attached to a small motor with elastic bands. Additionally, because the modules must be magnetically stuck to one another first, it can be difficult at times to mount the entire circuit on the LEGO board.
Included with the kit is a book that guides you, step-by-step, through the circuit design and building process. The lessons, while not "re-playable", are mostly easy to follow and can usually be done in less time than stated on the project cards. Our kid tester had a little bit of trouble with the directions on the "Fly Swatter" model, but was otherwise thrilled as she flew through each lesson.
The lesson book, in addition to the directions, also assigns activities that encourage reflection and imagination, which is always a good thing where growing minds are concerned.
The bottom line: The mPie Microduino kit can help kids to translate commands and the concept of "order of operations" into models that they can interact with in real life.
14. A sassy, clever companion robot
Ages: 7+ years old
Power: Internal battery and charger included
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, functions, function calls, conditional statements, wait for input, variables, counting loops, macros
How it works: Cozmo is a little robot who intuitively reacts to objects and people alike.
Cozmo's intense processing requires a more solid connection between the app and the device, so it uses Wi-Fi, rather than Bluetooth pairing.
Cozmo comes with three light-up cubes that Cozmo can move and manipulate.
There are four main components of the Cozmo app.
In "Feed", kids give Cozmo delicious treats in the form of the light-up cubes.
For "Play", users can ask Cozmo to do tricks or play games with it.
"Tune Up" involves calibrating Cozmo's different sensors and basically performing routine "maintenance".
The "Discover" module includes "Code Lab", which is where kids can build their own code and watch Cozmo turn it into reality.
When not in use, Cozmo chatters and chirps, and often wanders around looking for obstacles and people with whom to play.
Our experience: Hanns Tappeiner, Co-founder and President of Anki, told me that famous robots like R2-D2 and Wall-E inspired Cozmo. Trying to replicate the emotional connection that people experience with robots in movies involved going above and beyond the bare minimum: "A robot should be making eye contact with you, remember where he saw your face, and keep track of the world around it." To make Cozmo as clever and interactive as possible, Anki didn't just focus on the robotics aspect; Cozmo's personality/AI and facial animations have their own respective development teams. The result? "Everyone treats Cozmo like a pet."
Indeed, that was the very first comment that the tester made to me about Cozmo. Cozmo is adorable and extremely responsive, and definitely acts like a curious, mercurial pet when it is not being actively directed from the app.
Cozmo's AI includes two neat features: facial recognition and spatial mapping. This means that Cozmo can register the difference between a frown and a smile on a kid's face. In fact, "wait for a smile" is a line that you can program into Cozmo's code.
As for spatial mapping, Cozmo not only scans for (and registers) the presence of the light-up cubes, but looks for the human faces of its friends. The mapping isn't perfect (testers reported instances of Cozmo not recognizing every instance of cubes being tapped or shaken), but it makes for lots of fun when playing games. One such game involves Cozmo pouncing on any wiggling fingers it sees.
The included games and tricks are neat, but "Code Lab" is especially robust. After being walked through useful tutorials, users can do tons of cool stuff by combining a variety of icons representing different actions, emojis, noises, and logical operators. There isn't a lot of explanation for what each icon means, so it may take some trial and error for kids trying to get Cozmo to perform a specific sequence of actions, rather than those just exploring Cozmo's many different tricks and actions.
Additionally, in "Code Lab", the coding "blocks" (commands) are quite small, so they might be difficult to move or see for those with limited hand/eye coordination or imperfect eyesight, respectively.
For especially advanced coders, Anki will be releasing a "Code Lab" update that includes "vertical grammar", which allows kids to engage in multi-threading, or programming in different columns of code that will run simultaneously.
Cozmo is correctly advertised as being for older kids; younger children have difficulty letting Cozmo figure out its environment for itself, and often want to lift Cozmo up to help it complete its task. Additionally, Cozmo is as appealing to adults as it is to kids because Anki has created Cozmo SDK, a community for coders of all ages to make complex programs for Cozmo in Python, a common programming language.
With the rapid processing required to make Cozmo interactive, it's no surprise that the Cozmo app uses a lot of battery power; for extended use, be sure to have a charging cable plugged into your device. Lastly, a phone or tablet connects directly to Cozmo's Wi-Fi network, so when playtime is over, users will have to switch back to their home Wi-Fi network manually.
The bottom line: Cozmo is a lovable, emotive robot who can be a coding companion for older kids for the rest of their lives.
Update: Anki has just realized the Limited Edition version of Cozmo, as well as updated the Cozmo app interface, and really expanded Cozmo's capabilities. Create with Cozmo, a book that guides young programmers through the journey of coding with Cozmo, has also just been released.
15. A LEGO kit every coder will want
Ages: Ages 7-12
Power: 6 AAA batteries
Parental involvement needed: Moderate, for initial app navigation and setup; minimal once coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, conditional statements, logical operators, wait for input, variables
How it works: The LEGO BOOST kit comes with over 800 pieces, a stiff paper grid map, and a Bluetooth-connected motor that also includes motion, color, and orientation sensors.
LEGO BOOST only works with certain smart devices (primarily tablets) and some computers. Click here to see if your device is compatible with LEGO BOOST.
With instructions from the companion app, you can build one of five mobile, interactive models (including a guitar, a cat, a robot, a bulldozer, and a mini factory). Obviously, as with any LEGO kit, there is also the option to build whatever your kid wants to create. Once one of the models (or your child’s freestyle creation) is built, kids can write lines of code by dragging and dropping icons that click together and watch as the LEGO models react in fun and creative ways.
Our experience: As with all things LEGO, the fun is just endless with the BOOST kit.
While this LEGO kit can naturally be enjoyed on its own without the app, kids who want to get the models moving and reacting to their environment will want to use the sleekly-designed app. The lack of written instructions either in the kit or on the BOOST app can be a boon or a curse; kids will find it intuitive to navigate, while adults may want to dig around for some kind of written manual.
In the main menu, builders can select one of five models to create. Each model contains certain levels with step-by-step building instructions for assembling the model pieces; once kids get to a stopping point in building the LEGO model, the app then demonstrates the capabilities of that model with coding tutorials.
Users will need to do some experimentation with each coding block before its meaning becomes clear, but the tutorials are a good introduction to coding basics and the types of tricks each model has up its sleeve.
As you might expect, the models are awesome. I built the cat model in a few hours (admittedly, a large portion of that time was taken up in trying to find certain LEGOs), and it is truly amazing.
Granted, it’s been about decade since the last time my LEGO obsession reared its head, but clearly the block design and technology have evolved to new heights. With that block complexity in mind, have a pair of needle-nosed pliers on hand for easy model disassembly.
If your little ones are LEGO novices, think about starting them out on smaller, non-coding related LEGO kits, since those without the experience of reading LEGO assembly directions will be thrown by the lack of written instructions. Our testers, on the other hand, are all devoted LEGO lovers, had an absolute blast building the first car model. The six-year-old, even though he is outside the stated age range, easily picked up the drag-and-drop coding elements.
Once the LEGO builders in your life are more advanced in coding, they can try the freeform coding section of the LEGO BOOST app, where kids can make creations move and react to their heart’s content.
The bottom line: The LEGO BOOST kit is perfect for the LEGO lover in your life who is just entering the world of computer programming.
16. A spherical robot that just keeps rollin'
Ages: 8+ years old
Power: Internal battery and charger included
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once the app is set up, navigation of the app is understood, and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, loops, conditional statements, strings, logical operators, wait for input, variables, functions
How it works: SPRK+ is a spherical robot that rolls and reacts according to the code created in the Sphero Edu app.
SPRK+ comes with a charging base, "maze tape", and a protractor. The maze tape acts as as a boundary that SPRK+ will detect and navigate along, but never go beyond. SPRK+'s various sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, and orientation) provide feedback to the app, and act as inputs for further commands.
The SPRK+ coding language is a solid match for real programming languages; comments or warnings can be set up if SPRK+ performs certain actions or experiences certain circumstances (i.e. freefall, an obstacle, etc.).
Our experience: SPRK+ is the undecorated form of the widely-beloved BB8 robot from the new Star Wars Trilogy, and watching this little spherical robot roll and bounce is a great deal of fun.
We suggest, however, that parents take the time to get the app up and running themselves, as there are some initial sign in and connectivity steps that may cause kids to get bored. It also takes a little bit of time and experience for adults to figure out how navigate and use the app, and then show the kids how it's done.
For a bit of fun, children can also add in light and sound effects. Watching a little robot roll towards me at high speed with a chainsaw noise playing out of my phone was slightly more intimidating than I thought it would be.
As a bonus, because SPRK+ is basically a robot inside a water-tight compartment, there is even a lesson plan on the Sphero activity website (also found through the "Sphero" tab on the app) for teaching SPRK+ how to swim. We really appreciated SPRK+'s durability, as it is possible to have SPRK+ fall from smaller heights without breaking, or even without disrupting the code. That said, it's best to use SPRK+ on a hard floor surface with a lot of open space.
SPRK+ is definitely for older kids, though, because one subtle point may make navigation more difficult for younger kids: the concept of relative direction. In the app, SPRK+ can be "aimed" with the indicator light is on its behind, and then the relative angles can be determined with the included protractor. However, the "forward" direction (or 0°) is less obvious because SPRK+ is perfectly spherical. With time and practice, though, it should become less of a problem point.
The bottom line: SPRK+ gets more fun and more complex as kids get better and better at computer programming.
17. This is the droid that you're looking for
Ages: Ages 8+
Power: 9V battery, connected via Bluetooth
Parental involvement needed: moderate for robot assembly and coding basics, minimal once model is built and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, conditional statements, wait for input, counting loops
How it works: The Droid Inventor Kit from littleBits will be an instant hit with Star Wars fans both young and old. Using both circuit-building skills and coding skills, you can make R2-D2 dance around or attack intruders, or you can create your own customized robot.
Our experience: The Droid Inventor Kit helps you to unleash the Rebel fighter within you and your kids. The kit involves six circuit components that can be mounted in a variety of arrangements to a Lego-like structure to build droids that can move easily both on hardwood and carpeted floors.
By adding wheels and cranks to two of the circuit’s servos, your kid will slowly start to see how circuit inputs and connections help R2 to navigate around. Once you add in the app experience, though, a whole other world of possibilities opens up.
The Droid Inventor Kit app is divided into two sections: “Droid Controls” and “Missions”.
In the “Droid Controls” module, you can play with the different circuitry components individually. Some controls include:
“Sound Board”, where kids can make their own recordings and explore R2’s surprisingly sophisticated range of noises
“Joystick”, where you can just drive the robot around freestyle
“Security Mode”, where you can watch R2 freak out when something registers on its proximity sensor
In the “Missions” module, where each mission involves easy-to-follow video instructions that you can pause and replay at any time, children first assemble a very basic circuit, mount it onto the circuit board (the circuit modules click together magnetically and are built such that they can snap into the board), and have a very naked version of R2 move around.
The next mission involves assembly of R2-D2’s shell. Once users see how everything snaps together, it’s off to the races with a series of lessons that introduce the coding basics in the context of R2’s movements and reactions. One point of frustration in the missions is that while you can pause and replay videos, you cannot go back a step in the sequence—you have to exit out and restart the mission again, which can prove time-consuming if you’re building something elaborate and skipped a step by accident.
(The coding itself is based off of Scratch Blocks, so those familiar with the Scratch logic will catch on quickly, but those new to coding will still find it easy to move coding elements around with their fingers.)
Naturally, these missions get more complicated until kids really start to understand the real-life effects of code built on a screen and the endless possibilities that can arise from combining the same coding elements in different ways.
One of the best parts is getting to the part where you can make R2-D2’s head spin around with a simple press of a button. It’s satisfying to watch its head swivel around like it’s looking for Stormtroopers to take down.
The last mission, “Code Master”, allows for access to all of the programs coding blocks, and lets your child program R2 to his or her heart’s desire. I found the range of possible coding blocks to be somewhat limited compared to other comparable toys, but that’s because users are encouraged to go to DIY.org and gain access to more coding blocks and share their programs with a worldwide community of coders (you may need to pay a subscription fee to access certain content). Additionally, circuit components and coding blocks are completely compatible across all of the different littleBits coding kits, including the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit and the Electronics Gizmos & Gadgets Kit.
Last but not least, there’s also an art component to the Droid Inventor Kit—you can create and decorate your own robot shell. With the included stickers, it’s easy to make R2 look like any robot you can think of. Additionally, there’s even a place to mount a marker on R2’s back end so that it can draw patterns on paper sheets on the floor.
The Droid Inventor Kit has a ton of Star Wars-themed touches, which will really draw in those who grew up wanting to wield a lightsaber.
The bottom line: The Droid Inventor Kit by littleBits is easy fun for both kids and adults. With step-by-step coding instructions for coding and circuit beginners, to freestyle coding for those who are more advanced, you and your family should be able to play with R2-D2 for years.
18. A coding kit that wants your kids to keep moving
Ages: 8+ years old
App: Log on and create a Maker account, upload programs via USB
Power: Internal battery and charger included
Parental involvement needed: Minimal, once Mover Kit is assembled and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, macros, conditional statements, wait for input
How it works: With a small computer and motion sensors, the Mover Kit allows kids to combine physical activity and programming in this toy that can be worn like a watch.
The Mover Kit needs to be assembled; the instructions are pretty straightforward, but parents may or may not be needed at this step, since the components may seem delicate to kids' fingers.
Programming for the Mover Kit is driven by the two types of data: the device's orientation and its movement (or lack of movement). Three primary "gestures" are recognized by the Mover Kit: "Pow", "Whirl", and "Shake".
Our experience: The Mover Kit is the perfect marriage of computer programming and non-screen play time. For the coding aspect, kids compose their programs on the computer by dragging and dropping the different coding elements into the project area. Each program is mostly driven by the sensor data of the Mover Kit; the information from the sensors (like which way the device is facing and the aforementioned gestures) is the input, and the light show from the LEDs embedded in the Mover Kit is the output.
As the name of the Mover Kit implies, the sensors are activated by movement. Kids will enjoy seeing the ultimate fulfillment of their coding skills once the lights activate according to the uploaded programs. The Maker part of the Technology Will Save Us website has tons of neat sample projects, including shadow puppets and Gandalf's staff.
This is toy is correctly targeted at older kids who are just learning to code, as more advanced programmers may want more complex feedback than blinking colorful lights. That the coding is done on a website, rather than in an app, means that the programming aspect may not be as accessible to younger children.
Kids and parents alike will both really appreciate the creative aspect of the Mover Kit; the device doesn't necessarily have to be worn on the wrist, but can be mounted anywhere with its velcro strap, not the least of which is inside a lightsaber (i.e. paper towel tubes).
The bottom line: The Mover Kit is the perfect intersection of creative and programming fun for older coders who are just starting out.
19. A robot that jumps when you tell it to
Ages: Ages 8+
Power: Rechargable battery, connected via Bluetooth
Parental involvement needed: moderate for robot assembly and coding basics, minimal once model is built and coding basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, functions, function calls, conditional statements, wait for input, variables, counting loops
How it works: The JIMU Robot Buzzbot & Muttbot Kit is a DIY robotics kit that, in addition to showing kids how to build and operate the standard models (the aforementioned Buzzbot and Muttbot), also encourages them to build their own models and explore the relationship between computer code and the real world.
Our experience: The Buzzbot & Muttbot Kit is a great gift for a child who has a bit more experience in coding and/or robotics, and is looking for a fun challenge. Unless your kid has tried some of the beginner JIMU Robot kits (e.g. Builderbot kit, Explorer kit, Tankbot kit, etc.), chances are that (s)he will need help with the robot’s assembly.
I chose to build Muttbot, and it took me 2-3 hours to fully assemble. The assembly directions (in the “Build” section of the app) are very thorough and involve little animations that really help to show exactly which pieces go where. In anticipation of long assembly times, the app actually allows you to bookmark or scroll to a given set of directions, a function that I really appreciated. That said, if you take a break during assembly, it may be difficult to get 8 or 9-year-olds to come back to finish the robot. If your kid doesn't have that kind of attention span, consider the aforementioned smaller, easier JIMU Robot kits.
I would really recommend that an adult or older kid help with building the first JIMU robot; there are a number of very small pieces, as well as pieces that are only subtly distinct from one another. These two factors combine to make the task of building the robot a bit more difficult than those robotics kits aimed at younger, less experienced builders. On the other hand, to help with those smaller pieces, this kit cleverly includes a “fastener removal tool”, which really helps to speed up disassembly.
Additionally, connecting the servos (small motors that provide rotation) to the internal battery requires hand-eye coordination and hand strength that may surpass the abilities of younger children.
(On a similar note, I didn’t realize until a significant part of the way through assembly that the pieces actually snap together securely [even though it’s mentioned in the directions], so to prevent pieces of Muttbot falling off while the robot is in motion, push all pieces together until you hear a “snap” to ensure that everything is properly attached.)
Once the robot is built, though, your kid is in for a wild ride. In the JIMU app, there are three options for exploring Muttbot’s capabilities:
•“Control”, which allows you to drive aspects of the robot manually
•“Actions”, where you can try out the robot’s build-in actions
•“Coding”, where you can control the robot via coding with virtual blocks that “snap” together to form full command chains and functions
When I told Muttbot to “play” (in the “Actions” module), I was instantly surprised by how much movement was actually involved. Muttbot pranced like a champion breed at a dog show, and then jumped and stretched with the grace of a cat (albeit a robotic one).
I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store when I was in the “Coding” section; there were tons of options for variables, control statements, actions, and sensors (sensors are not included in this kit, but in expansion packs). However, there are no coding tutorials available in the app, so unless your kid already has a solid understanding of coding logic, you may need to sit down and explain the purpose of each piece of code. Alternatively, start your child off with some of the more basic robotics/coding kits mentioned earlier in this article.
The “Control” section is for those who want to build and customize their own robots with the pieces in the kit. In this module, you can explore and hone your understanding of each aspect of the servos and other built-in actions, to the point where you can tell a specific servo to rotate a certain number of degrees in a certain time frame. In that same vein, for those looking for ideas about other fun models you can build with the Buzzbot & Muttbot kit, you can see other users’ projects (and add your own!) in the “Community” module in the JIMU app.
The bottom line: The JIMU Robot Buzzbot & Muttbot Kit has a steep learning curve, but it will really help the more advanced coders to flourish and inspire them to imagine and create robots beyond the basic models.
20. Three board games that the whole family can play
Ages: 8+ years old
Parental involvement needed: Moderate, to understand the gameplay, minimal once gameplay and rules are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, conditional statements, logical operators, functions
How it works: On the Brink, Robot Repair, and Rover Control all come with a small game board, game pieces, a mission book, and a solution manual. Each "level" is its own individual mind teaser, where only a specific combination of colors or moves is the correct solution.
In "Rover Control", kids must color in certain branches of a map, arrange charging stations, and account for different possible colored paths (i.e. conditional statements) to ensure that the rover hits certain checkpoints and ultimately reaches the stated endpoint for that level.
"Robot Repair" involves fixing a broken robot by turning on and off certain color switches so that the logical statements in the mission book for that level are satisfied.
For "On the Brink", players must set up functions (made up of robot movements) corresponding to each colored space on the game board, such that the rover safely makes it to the end of the maze (without surpassing the aforementioned brink).
Our experience: On the Brink, Robot Repair, and Rover Control are three board games that are a great next step for kids that have outgrown the concepts in Robot Turtles. Each game really hammers home the various situations in which logical operators (Robot Repair), functions (On the Brink), and conditional statements (Rover Control) are useful.
The games are complicated enough that we recommend that a parent or an older adult take some time to get to know the rules and particulars before handing it off to a kid. The gameplay is challenging at first, but often, looking at the first few solutions is very illuminating. Thanks to the various rules and the increasing difficulty of the levels, these are definitely games that older kids and adults can play together. While only one player can play a single level at a time, it's fun for everyone to collaborate and try to solve each puzzle together. Adults both with and without coding experience will definitely learn a thing or two as well.
Our testers really enjoyed the fact that these are screen-free games. For those parents who limit screen time for their kids, these games are a great way to get some solid face-to-face quality time.
The bottom line: The //CODE games are a fun challenge for more advanced programmers and anyone who loves a good logic puzzle.
21. A fun circuit and coding kit for the advanced coder in your life
Ages: Ages 8+
Website: Directions for assembling this kit/learning to code in Scratch/learning to use a circuit board are located at the Boolean University link on the Boolean Girl website. You will need to create a login ID.
Power: Wall charger for Raspberry Pi computer; 4 AAA batteries for wireless mouse and keyboard
Parts required, but not included in kit: a computer monitor or TV with an HDMI input
Parental involvement needed: moderate for computer setup, circuit assembly, and coding basics; minimal once these basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, logical operators, conditional statements, wait for input, variables, counting loops, using code to control circuit components in the real world
How it works: The Boolean Box kit is an amazing kit that introduces programming, circuit design, and logical thinking in fun, bite-sized lessons that will be fun for both new and advanced coders.
Our experience: I love the Boolean Box. I definitely wish I’d had it as a kid; it would have saved me a lot of angst in my “Electronics and Computers” class in college.
The Boolean Box comes with a Raspberry Pi 3 computer chip, a wireless mouse, a wireless keyboard, a breadboard (AKA a circuit board with many, many ports), wires, two types of resistors, buttons, LED lights, a chip with input/output ports, an HDMI cable, and a power cable. This may seem somewhat overwhelming at first, but easy-to-follow directions located at the Boolean University website calmed my initial panic and helped me to get Raspberry Pi up and running in no time.
With Raspberry Pi 3, the Boolean Box introduces young coders to a whole learning environment, not just a single toy with a single purpose. Once the computer is up and running, you’ll have access to Scratch (the primary programming language in this kit), EduBlocks (a module that allows kids who’ve learned Scratch to start programming in Python), 9va-pi (a vector animation and drawing program), and a terminal window (a way to control computer functions through typed commands, rather than operating the computer with a mouse).
Before jumping right in, though, I would encourage you and your kids to take some time to explore the ins and outs of Scratch first. From the main Scratch panel, you can investigate the different coding components (“Motion”, “Control”, “Looks”, etc.), the different "sprites" (characters that follow coding instructions on the screen) and backgrounds, and the x-y coordinate system that describes the location of those sprites on those backgrounds.
The lessons on the Boolean University website are illustrative and thorough. What I really like about the lessons is that you can skip around as needed; if your kid is already an accomplished Scratch programmer, then he/she can breeze through those lessons and start building interactive games using the circuit board in no time. On the other hand, if this is the first time your kid is trying to code, the introductory lessons are pitched at just the right level.
Simpler lessons include making the cat sprite “dance” and creating a game where a dog chases a cat around the screen; more complex projects involve designing a simple circuit both onscreen and on the circuit board, as well as making a rudimentary up/down/left/right game controller that tells the cat sprite where to go.
In addition to teaching coding concepts, there’s also a large art and animation component to this kit. Children can draw on top of existing sprites, or design new sprites altogether. Cleverly, the kit is also designed to allow coders to change the appearance of sprites through Scratch commands, as well as by manual drawing. I personally had a fun time gussying up the basic cat sprite so that it now had a top hat, a vest, and a monocle.
My favorite part of the Boolean Box, however, is the circuit board. Even though the circuitry components are very basic (LED lights, push buttons, wires, etc.), being able to write code that dictates commands to or receives input/output from a circuit board is going to be mind-blowing to kids encountering that phenomenon for the first time. It’s one thing to code a program on a computer; it is quite another thing to be able to affect (or see the effects of) that code in the real, non-digital world.
One thing I would advise is to be aware that the components of the circuit board may not look identical to those in the directions; my breadboard, chip with input/output ports, and resistors were different enough from the pictures in the lessons that it threw me off for a bit. If you’re not sure whether the circuit board is working or not, it might be a good idea to have a voltmeter or a multimeter on hand, just in case. While it was a bit confusing, it also forced me to troubleshoot, a skill that can only help kids later on in life.
The bottom line: By incorporating Scratch coding, circuit design, and artistic elements, the Boolean Box has something fun for everyone, and will be a blast for kids at all levels of coding proficiency.
22. A laptop computer for the burgeoning hacker in your life
Ages: Ages 8+ years
Power: Laptop cable and ethernet dongle included
Parental involvement needed: minimal, once the basics are established
Coding concepts: Following commands, order of operations, functions, conditional statements, random number generators, arrays, debugging
How it works: Hack is an exciting (and growing!) digital environment full of coding tutorials cleverly disguised as fun games that will make your kid want to advance to the next level (and learn increasingly sophisticated coding techniques along the way). Hack is built into the operating system of an Asus laptop, and comes with its own ecosystem of highly relevant and useful apps.
Our experience: Hack is a novel and fun way of teaching kids to code. The Hack Starter kit consists only of a few directions and an Asus laptop.
In the home screen, there’s an orange tab that, when clicked, sends you to the Clubhouse, where cool characters like Ada (presumably after Ada Lovelace, one of the first computer programmers), Riley, Estelle, Faber, and Saniel guide you through the coding games and tutorials.
Your first stop is Fizzics, which is where you use a slingshot, among other tools, to bounce a ball around an obstacle course to collect gems and hit the target. While this game is basic at first, looks can be deceiving. By clicking on the tab on the left side of the screen, the entire screen is flipped so that you see the game interface from behind, revealing the programming that makes up the game.
With a few button presses, you can make the bouncy ball have negative gravity, force the bouncy ball and the spiky obstacles to repel one another, or make the gems so big that they take up the entire screen. While these options are first presented as buttons you can click, eventually, Hack introduces the ability to view the actual computer code for this game, in the form of array attributes.
Naturally, your first thought is to manipulate the code to make the levels easier, and that is exactly what you’re supposed to do. By changing array values, you can work your way through the levels when you don’t have the option to just launch the bouncy ball with the slingshot. In real life, when you pause a game, change all the rules, and then resume gameplay, that’s called cheating. With Hack, it isn’t cheating: this is how players actually learn how to code. In most cases, you can only advance by manipulating the code behind the game on a level-by-level (or sometimes second-by-second) basis. The true genius of Hack lies in the fact that not only does it teach kids vital coding concepts, but it makes them feel like they’re getting away with something while they do it.
While spending time with the inhabitants of the clubhouse, you’re pulled in to the mystery of a rogue AI intelligence that is cat-shaped and is causing all sorts of shenanigans in the Hack universe. As you move through challenges that unlock new coding options, games, and puzzles, the plot continues to unfold; both the mystery and the new puzzles will definitely keep kids engaged; I know I was still thinking about some levels hours after I’d powered down the computer.
The other games and apps you explore on this coding journey are just as fun, challenging, and Hack-able as Fizzics.
The System app gives you clear and kid-friendly explanations for how a computer works.
In Lightspeed, you manipulate the game parameters so that your space shuttle more easily avoids deadly asteroids and undulating squids.
Sidetrack is a maze/puzzle game where you advance to the next level by coding in specific movements in sequence so as to avoid the bug robots and bottomless pits.
Sometimes, during the games, the computer would slow way down or freeze altogether; there were also times where the game guides provided by the characters in the clubhouse stopped working. Additionally, sometimes updates to games or the Hack operating system took a few tries to actually take hold. Typically, these problems were remedied by restarting the computer a couple of times.
For the most part, navigating the Hack environment is pretty straightforward; the clubhouse tab on the right side of the screen glows when there’s new information or challenges available. However, one polarizing aspect of Hack is that there is not a lot of guidance or hints provided if you’re not sure what the next step of the game is, or if you’re stuck on a level and don’t know how to advance. The Hack creators want their customers to work through each puzzle without help, so if you need assistance beyond the hints the characters drop, you’ll need to email the Hack support team to get access to documentation that can help you troubleshoot or move to the next level.
Sets of challenges in these apps are organized into “episodes”, of which there are currently four; Hack is a subscription service that, for $9.99 a month, will continue to provide your child with new adventures and more complex coding concepts.
Even if you don’t choose to use the subscription service, though, there are tons of built-in app options that are both amazingly useful and seriously fun. I downloaded The Passage, which is a coding adventure game in the style of Jill of the Jungle, a computer game I loved as kid.
The Passage is a great place to learn coding by trial and error, since putting the wrong numbers or variables into the code can mean the difference between dying in putrid water or making it to the next level. While it’s not exactly low-stakes, the worst thing that can happen, like in all computer games, is that you start back at the beginning of the level.
With everything from resume tools, textbook apps, lifestyle tips, animation tools, and games of the coding and non-coding variety, it’s easy to find something for everyone in Hack’s app environment.
In addition to the Hack programs, the laptop is also perfectly usable by itself. The Google Chrome browser is standard, and navigating through the tools and menus is fairly intuitive; it’s easy to see why this computer is recommended as a good first laptop for kids.
The bottom line: With or without the subscription service, Hack makes the process of learning how to code fun for both beginner and intermediate coders. The app ecosystem is a great bonus, and the laptop is perfect for those just starting to learn how to navigate a computer system more complicated than a tablet.
Even though it seems like kids are born knowing how to operate an iPad, these coding games will help children of all ages to take their computer programming understanding to the next level. Once kids get going on these toys, they'll only have one question for the adults in their lives: can you keep up?
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