If your youngster is already interested in computers (and other mobile gadgetry), now is the perfect time to seek out the best coding toys for kids. There are myriad apps, toys and games available to teach coding skills to children of all ages and jumpstart those future techie careers. These days, though, the sheer variety of such educational tools can be downright dizzying.
In recent years, most educators would agree that open-ended playtime activities and the ability to "scale up" in complexity as a child grows older are useful rules of thumb when deciding which STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) toys to purchase.
"The easy advice is to look for something easy," said 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 for its K–8 students. "Use really basic stuff to get kids into it." Matthews also noted that coding skills don't have to be tied to computer hardware; board games can be just as effective (and fun) for kids. The problem, he warned, is that some coding games can be too restrictive as players advance from one level to another. The end result? When kids get bored, they lose interest in a hurry.
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 as much a form of expression as it is a set of rules, and should be taught as such. Resnick's team spearheaded the Scratch programming language, and he believes that children who use this language to focus on projects — rather than just solving puzzles — can understand how to code better, just as storytelling or writing improves literacy.
Today's options for coding toys have become incredibly robust, and we've rounded up our favorites. From board games to programmable robots to Jedi mind tricks, here are some of the best coding toys for kids:
Best coding toys for younger kids
Animal Island AILA Sit & Play Virtual Early Preschool Learning System: $199 at Amazon
Ages: 1 to 8
If you want to encourage critical thinking skills from the get-go, consider the Animal Island Learning Adventure (AILA) Sit & Play Virtual Early Preschool Learning System, a hands-free, subscription-free virtual playground of educational content carefully curated by professional educators and industry innovators. The AILA Sit & Play uses a unique combination of hardware, software, cognitive AI and a robust preschool curriculum that comes in a colorful, toddler-friendly format. It's one of the best ways to introduce your preschooler to math, problem-solving, and collaborative thinking. This educational tablet isn't a coding toy per say, but the AILA Sit & Play will absolutely pave the way for the best coding toys found below as your toddler learns about basic colors, shapes, numbers, and words.View Deal
Fisher Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar Twist: $34.99 at Amazon
Ages: 3 to 6
Fisher-Price is well known for its engaging toy lines aimed at small children, and Code-a-Pillar is no exception. The Code-a-Pillar is a set of eight colorful body segments and a head; each segment has a "direction" or "action" icon (for playing music or wiggling). By linking the segments together in sequence, the Code-a-Pillar Twist will follow that sequential set of instructions. The idea is teaching toddlers how to string together basic sequences of commands. The company also offers "expansion packs" for additional commands, like one for a 180-degree turn. Parents will likely be happy to learn that the Amazon Exclusive version of the toy includes volume control.View Deal
Primo Cubetto Classic: $239.95 at Target
Ages: 3 to 6
Made by startup Primo Toys, Cubetto was a Kickstarter project in 2016 that raised more than 15 times the set goal of $100,000. Designed for kids ages 3 years and up, Cubetto doesn't require a screen. It's an elegant wooden robot that kids can control by inserting wooden representations of programming commands — coding blocks — onto the board. These 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. View Deal
Fisher Price Code 'n Learn Kinderbot: $59.99 at Amazon
Ages: 3 to 6
This cute robot is a great way to introduce preschoolers to STEM education, utilizing exciting code challenges to teach early math concepts, colors, letters and more. Kids can try out a variety of fun experiments to practice their coding and problem-solving skills — just in time for kindergarten. In Free Coding mode, children press the directional buttons on top of the robot to "code" a path, and then watch their bot buzz around. The included Secret Codebook teaches kids to follow directions and learn about different shapes; they can even turn their robot companion into different characters as they play. View Deal
Botzees AR Coding Robot: $99.99 at Amazon
Ages: 4 to 7
Are you raising an aspiring Rocket Raccoon? The Botzees AR Coding Robot is the perfect robot-companion for your preschooler, and it's one of the best coding toys for kids overall. Young kids can use an app on iOS and Android devices to program their robot to move, drum, dance, make sounds and activate its lights on command. The kit includes 130 unique, easy-to-grip pieces (with rounded edges) to encourage hands-on learning as your preschooler navigates interactive augmented reality puzzles. Compatible with iOS 12+ devices that support ARKit (or Android 8+ devices that support ARCore), the Botzees AR Coding Robot turns screen time into learning time.View Deal
KIBO Robot Kit: $149 at Amazon
Ages: 4 to 7
Taking a different approach than many of its competitors, KIBO's robot kit appeals to both the mechanically and artistically minded. Available in four different varieties, the KIBO kits come with tons of customizable options; additional programming blocks, modules, and other complementary curriculum is also available for purchase a la carte.
What is the KIBO, exactly? Anything your child can imagine! They can design their interactive robot to become an animal, vehicle, or children's story character as they customize their educational contraption. Colorful wooden blocks make the concept of coding more tangible for developing noggins, and the screen-less design eliminates distractions as your child learns about light, sight, distance, and sound. Long-story-short: It's full-steam ahead for STEM-centric learning.View Deal
ThinkFun Robot Turtles: $24.99 at Amazon
Ages: 3 to 8
The best coding toys don't always come the latest technological bells and whistles — sometimes simple tools suffice. In the Robot Turtles board game, players move their turtles around the board by giving their character specific instructions; the object is to reach the colorful jewels in the middle. A system of cards gives the turtles directions on where to move or, at more advanced levels, navigate around obstacles (for example, using a laser to melt an ice barrier). While playing, kids will learn to put together instructions in a sequence, an essential skill in coding. The best part? This inexpensive board game doesn't require batteries or an Internet connection.View Deal
Learning Resources Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set: $52.53 at Amazon
Ages: 4 to 7
With this Code & Go Robot, kids can build mazes for Colby the mouse and program Colby to navigate the maze in proper sequence. And there's no need for a computer or wi-fi connection. The set comes with mazes (depicted on "activity cards") that children can build, or kids can make their own with walls and tunnels. The programming involves simple directions (called "actions") like lighting up or making sounds. To complement each programming sequence, the game cards have color-coded icons to match Colby's buttons (which program the mouse). Designed for younger children, the activity set doesn't even require reading skills. View Deal
WowWee COJI the Coding Robot: $32.99 at Amazon
Ages: 4 to 7
Kids can program the WowWee COJI Coding Robot by using emojis. They can use a tablet or smartphone to load programs onto the robot, though some basic functions are available even without a 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 COJI Coding Robot include games that illustrate how to create specific and sequential instructions for the robot. This (relatively) simple toy is ideal for kids ages 4 to 7, and is sure to provide hours of fun for the junior programmer in your household.View Deal
Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot 2.0:
Ages: 5 to 8
This award-winning robot is one of the best coding toys for kids, and it's perfect for grade-schoolers. With zero screen required, Botley is ready to code right out of the box: He can move in six directions, play music and even put on a light display; the robot has 16 functions for hours of coding fun. Coders-in-training can build coding sequences up to 150 steps or use Botley's built-in light sensor for nighttime adventures. This is a great way to learn STEM skills, sans-screen.View Deal
Best coding toys for older kids
Kano Star Wars The Force Coding Kit:
Ages: 6 to 12
Jumpstart your child's tech journey from padawan to master with the Kano Star Wars The Force Coding Kit. As they experiment with powers of the Force (Dark Side or Light?), children simultaneously learn to code while they create, following the included instructions to connect the board, buttons and other mechanical bits. The step-by-step challenges walk users through connecting code blocks, introducing them to the basics along the way: loops, logic and variables. The more intense the training, the more powerful your kid becomes (both figuratively and literally), using hand motions to swing lightsabers, levitate X-wings, pilot starships and create Force lightning strikes. Once the Force is in the palm of their hands, kids can create their own Star Wars adventures with iconic characters, creatures and planets from the ever-popular franchise. The more you learn, the more expansive the kit becomes. View Deal
This kit contains everything you need to get your 5- to 10-year-old started on coding. Compatible with the 7th Generation Fire 7, HD 8, HD 10, 8th Generation Fire HD 8, 9th Generation HD 7 and HD 10. You get an Osmo base & reflector for Fire tablets, 31 tangible coding blocks and storage, along with three game apps: Coding Awbie, Coding Jam and Coding Duo.View Deal
Wonder Workshop Dash: $149.95 at Amazon
Ages: 6 to 12
The Wonder Workshop Dash robot looks like the miniature mobile spawn of HAL 9000, and it arrives charged and ready to use — right out of the box. This coding toy offers a unique open-ended learning platform to make STEM education both fun and accessible, encouraging critical thinking and curious minds. It introduces youngsters to the wide world of code, allowing them to execute voice commands as well as explore loops, events, conditions and sequences. This little robot is so engaging, in fact, that you'll find it in over 20,000 classrooms worldwide; the complementary apps guide children through endless projects and puzzles. The Dash makes for a great educational companion, and it's perfect for dynamic group activities.View Deal
Root rt0 iRobot Coding Robot: $149.99 at Amazon
Ages: 6 to 14
No matter your child's coding experience, this robot will provide hours of learning and entertainment. The Root rt0 iRobot Coding Robot is responsive to touch, light, color and sound; and the related app contains a full suite of dynamic challenges for your child to explore. The magnetic attachment points are easy to use, and the included Learning Library is jam-packed with hours of lessons, projects and fun STEM-friendly activities. (For advanced coders, a subscription option is available to access premium content.)
There are three levels of code learning, with graphical code progressing to hybrid and full-text coding. When they've mastered all three, kids can program the Root to drive, turn, draw/erase, light up, play music and more. The only limit to this artistic little robot is your child's imagination.View Deal
Kano Computer Kit: $69.97 at Walmart
Ages: 6 to 14
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 Raspberry Pi 3 processor and Kano's own operating system, plus a keyboard. An HDMI connection allows kids to utilize a separate television screen or computer monitor.
The Raspberry Pi 3 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, such as right- and left-clicking with two separate buttons. The included booklet guides children through the basics of assembly, with simple terms and pictures. Once it's hooked up, the Kano kit provides a web browser, but the heart of the computer comes in the form of apps that let kids code pictures, build animations and record musical masterpieces.View Deal
Lego Boost Creative Toolbox: $159.99 at Target
Ages: 7 to 12
The Boost Creative Toolbox allows 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; kids can program using a block-based system that connects to the robots via Bluetooth.
As usual with Lego, 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. This STEM toy might be on the expensive side, but trust us, the extra IQ points will be worth it.View Deal
ThinkFun Circuit Maze Electric Current Brain Game: $29.99 at Amazon
Ages: 8 to 12
With this game, older kids can build actual circuits, using a 5x5 grid on which the player draws a challenge card and then has to insert mechanical 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 (though it does require 3 AAA batteries), and it's an affordable option for developing those critical thinking skills; it comes with 60 beginner to expert challenges that become increasingly difficult as players progress. View Deal
$519.99 $449.99 at Sony
Ages: 8 to 14
Sony's Koov includes a set of 3D blocks that look a bit like Tetris pieces. These blocks, which include sensors and actuators, allow kids to build robots, and in that sense they resemble Lego's Mindstorms kits. Koov is equipped with a mobile app to get budding roboticists started, but it also allows kids to build just about anything, really. 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. (Bonus: 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.)
The Koov might be one of the best coding toys for kids, but it's pretty pricey: The Trial Kit normally retails for $249, while the full Educator Kit will run you at least $449.99.View Deal
Sphero Mini: $49.99 at Amazon
Ages: 8 to 14
Founded in 2010, Sphero is looking to change the world with their fleet of STEM-friendly educational robots, allowing children to learn, create, invent and explore the world around them like never before.View Deal
Sphero SPRK+: $96.99 at Target
Ages: 8 to 14
Originally published on Live Science.