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.
Over a few weeks, myself and some curious kids and parents investigated 12 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 experience with a wide variety of robots and board games (arranged in increasing age appropriateness), read on!
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 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.
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.
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.
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
How it works: Elmoji is the latest version of Coji, an emoji-themed robot aimed at young kids.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
9. LEGO BOOST
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: This LEGO 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.
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.
11. Mover Kit
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.
12. //CODE games: On the Brink, Robot Repair, and Rover Control
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: Each of these three games comes 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.
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?