Do you have a child interested in computers and other tech? To jumpstart their future tech-y careers, many apps, toys and games are available to teach coding and computer science skills to kids. The variety can be dizzying. Live Science spoke with some educators, who seem to agree that open-ended play and the ability to "scale up" in complexity as a child grows older are useful rules of thumb when deciding which ones to purchase.
"The easy advice is to look for something easy," Mike Matthews, director of curriculum and program innovation at Katherine Delmar Burke School, a private, all-girls school in the San Francisco Bay area that offers coding opportunities within classes for its K–8 students, told Live Science. "Use really basic stuff to get kids into it." The problem, he said, is that games can be too restrictive. "Some games at the last [most advanced] level have nothing left to do." That means children will lose interest.
In addition, Matthews said, coding skills don't have to be tied to computer hardware. Board games can be just as effective and fun for kids.
Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, says in his book "Lifelong Kindergarten" (The MIT Press, 2017) that coding is a form of expression as much as a set of rules, and in that regard it should be taught in that way. Resnick led the group that invented the Scratch programming language, and in the book he says allowing children who use it to focus on projects, rather than solving puzzles, can help them understand how to code better, just as storytelling or writing improves literacy. [Read the full story on whether coding toys and apps really work]
Here are some of the best coding toys for kids:
Not every coding toy has to have all the latest technological bells and whistles — sometimes simple tools suffice. Robot Turtles is a board game that is designed for children ages 3 to 8. The player has to get a turtle to a jewel on the board, by giving specific instructions. A system of cards gives the turtle directions, which can be movement or, at more advanced levels, getting around obstacles (for example, using a laser to melt an ice barrier). The point is to help kids learn to put together instructions in sequence, an essential skill in coding. One of the big selling points is that it is inexpensive (about $21.39 on Amazon) and doesn't require batteries or an Internet connection.
Robot Turtles was originally a Kickstarter project, put on the site in 2013 by former Google developer Dan Shapiro. It raised $631,230 — the goal was $25,000, pledged by 13,765 people. The game is now published by ThinkFun.
This game involves building actual circuits, using a 5x5 grid on which the player draws a challenge card and then has to insert components to make a working circuit in order to turn on a light. The challenges have more than one "right" answer, though the pieces have to be placed in the right order. This game can also be used absent an Internet connection. Published by ThinkFun.
Kids can program this robot, named Coji, by using emojis. They can use a tablet or smartphone to load programs onto the robot, though some basic functions are available even without the mobile device.
The emojis describe the robot's actions. For example, a sequence of directional symbols will send the robot moving in those directions, and adding the emoji for a musical instrument will make it play a small flourish when done. Kids can also add programming tools such as if-then statements. The apps for the robot include games that illustrate giving the robot specific and sequential instructions. It's made by WowWee, and about $35 from Amazon.
Lego Boost Robotics
Geared to kids ages 7 to 12, the Boost sets allow for five different programmable robots (or robot-like models) from a kit that includes bricks, a central processing unit and sensors. The robot can be programmed from an iPad or Android tablet with the included app. The build projects are complex, but less so than Lego's Mindstorms kits. Programming is done with a block-based system that connects to the robots via Bluetooth.
As usual with Lego sets, the Boost components are compatible with other Lego sets, so once a child has built, for example, Vernie the robot, they can customize it — maybe using superhero or Star Wars-themed sets, or something completely unique. As is the case with many Lego sets, it's on the more expensive side: about $160 for the set.
Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set
This is another teacher of coding skills that doesn't involve a computer and wi-fi connection: Kids can build mazes for Colby the mouse and program the mouse to take the sequential steps to get through the maze. The set comes with mazes (depicted on "activity cards") that a child can build, or kids can make their own with walls and tunnels. The programming involves simple directions or an "action" like lighting up or making sounds. To aid in setting up the programming sequence, the game comes with cards that have printed icons color-coded to match the buttons on the top (which program the mouse). Designed for children as young as 5, it doesn't even require reading skills. Made by Learning Resources, it retails for about $60.
Fisher-Price is well known for its engaging toy lines geared to small children, and Code-a-Pillar is no exception. The Code-a-Pillar is a set of eight segments and a head, and each segment has a symbol on the back that shows a direction or an "action" icon for playing music or wiggling. By linking together the segments in sequence, the Code-a-Pillar will follow that sequential set of instructions. The idea is to teach even toddlers how to string together sequences of commands. The toy also has "expansion packs" for additional commands like one for a 180-degree turn. The only down side for parents is that there is no volume control. It retails for under $50 on Amazon, and the expansion packs can be had for $12 or less.
Electronics, coding and clay would seem an odd combination, but a company called Technology Will Save Us (really) launched a Kickstarter project to make what the founders call a "squishy play experience." The clay, called "electro-dough," is conductive. Coupled with a simple battery pack, a speaker and a video-game-like controller, 4 to 6 year olds can make simple circuits, and mold them into any shape. The set also includes an app called Dough Universe that guides children through projects and activities.
Some 650 backers chipped in $72,114, and the company says it will ship in November. (Like any Play-Doh-type toy, the colored clays will likely eventually mix into a blob of brown.) A complete kit can be had for a pledge of $100.
Koov, from Sony, is a set of blocks based on a cube shape that all look a bit like Tetris pieces. The blocks, which include sensors and actuators, allow kids to build robots, and in that sense resemble Lego's Mindstorms kits. Koov is equipped with a mobile app to get budding roboticists started, but it allows kids to build just about anything. The battery and central processor are also separate blocks, so the shape of your kid's creation has more flexibility than some other building sets. Koov's apps also offer a way to share designs online. For privacy-concerned parents, Sony has pledged not to store any information on children under 13, in line with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.
As interesting as Koov is, it's pricey, and getting one is harder if you live in the United States. Sony ran an Indiegogo campaign to gauge interest from North Americans, and kits were selling for about $300. One can visit Amazon's Japanese site, though, and order from there, and the price will be about $450 plus the shipping.
Kano Computer Kit
For kids who want to build their own computer, the Kano kit makes the whole process less intimidating. And it's a real computer, powered by a Rasberry Pi processor and Kano's own operating system, plus a keyboard. An HDMI cable will allow it to hook up to a separate television screen or computer monitor, or you can buy a separate screen.
The Rasberry Pi board is in a transparent case, so kids can see the actual workings of a computer, and cables are color coded to help ensure young builders put them in the right place. The keyboard also has some child-specific features like right and left clicking with two separate buttons (some younger folks find it hard to do the gesture on a single mouse or trackpad). A book guides children through the basics of assembling with simple terms and pictures. Once it's hooked up, it offers a web browser, but the heart of the computer comes in the form of apps that focus on making games such as Pong or programming with Minecraft-like tools. Kano retails for $150 on Amazon, and the screen is $170.
Made by startup Primo Toys, Cubetto was a Kickstarter project in 2016 that raised more than 15 times their goal of $100,000. Designed for 3 year olds, Cubetto doesn't need screens. It's a wooden robot that is controlled from a board into which children insert wooden representations of programming commands — coding blocks. The coding blocks are color-coded for what they do, and kids can experiment with putting them in different sequences. The company's founder, Filippo Yacob, says in a video that he wanted to create an easy and inclusive programming tool that works for even very young children. Cubetto is available for $224.
Osmo Coding Jam
Osmo teaches young children about coding music, and requires an iPad to run the app. Kids create a character to play a given instrument; up to three characters can play at once.
Once the user profile is set up on the app, you put the device into the Osmo base (sold separately) and camera attachment. The camera attachment allows the iPad to "read" the blocks that will be used to code the music, and the blocks are placed in front of the iPad. The blocks are color-coded and can be set up so that an instrument plays higher or lower notes. On the screen are instruments "played" by the different blocks. A tutorial will guide children through the first steps, and then they can begin building their own compositions. The biggest benefit here is not only giving kids a sense of sequential instructions, but also allowing children to figure out for themselves what kinds of sounds go together — they may not be able to read music (and it isn't designed to teach them that), but they will have a better sense of how it is put together. Osmo retails for $60 on Amazon.
Originally published on Live Science.