STEM Coding Toy Ideas

Best Toys To Teach Kids How To Code [2020 Update]

2020 has been a roller coaster year for education and selecting a great toy to teach kids to code can be tricky to select.  However, I am helping navigate the landscape with my toy picks and 6 things to consider when picking out a toy. There are a few returning favorites with a few new ones too.

Due to COVID-19 I have created a list of  6 areas to consider when selecting a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) gift with a focus on coding.  This list is great for any time of the year gift giving.

COVID-19 Advice

When I chose to teach my students remotely this fall term, I knew there would be some challenges.  As I talk to my teacher peers at all grade levels we compare notes on what we are seeing.  Some feel students are online now far too much.

I added that as one of my checklist items to consider when selecting a coding toy.   If being online concerns you, look for a gift that has them moving.  You will see those indicated in my list.

Coding Toys and Gadgets

I love the holiday season and gift giving.  I will be wrapping up my fall term with exams and getting grades in after teaching my technology courses.  This ultimately means Christmas and the holidays are here!  As with every year, a number of friends ask me what I would recommend as a toy for their child that would teach them the basics of coding or thinking logically.  

Once again, I crafted this list to share with you.  I have had my eye on a few really cool toys and gadgets that would make awesome gifts during this Christmas and Holiday season.  Here are my thoughts on some great gifts.

If you are new to codingI provide an easy to understand explaination here.

I Never Want To Grow Up!!

I love toys and always have.  But I really loved the toys that sparked my imagination and curiosity.  

My kids are now 27, 19, and 18 but I still love toys and gadgets.  So do they. 

Do you remember your favorite toy? 

Why was it your favorite?  Keep that in mind when you pick out a gift for a young learner.  If you are looking for that cool tech gift that can inspire a young coder, keep these 6 areas in mind.

6 Key Areas To Keep In Mind When Selecting A Coding Toy

  1. COVID-19 – Get up and move!  Anything is OK with moderation, even being at a computer.  However, this year, I highly recommend the SPHERO line of robots that you can code.  They get you up and moving as you move them around obstacles courses and other challenges.  If Sphero isn’t your choice, then look for toys that allow you to create, move around and even take out doors.
  2. Price – Yes, I know we love our kids and would give them the moon.  But you really don’t have to buy a $1000 computer and software to get coding.  Look for something that fits your budget.  A child can enjoy a $40 gadget as much as a $400.  You know the old story…”I bought all these gifts, and my son played with the boxes”.  Actually that was me.  I used my imagination with everything.  Which leads me to this one….
  3. Imagination – Does the toy/gadget allow a kid to explore?  For example, everything seems to come with an app today to control your toy/gadget.  But the app only allows it to go forward or backwards and light up.  That gets boring after about 20 minutes or when the batteries die.  Look for items that have app that allow a full range of control.
  4. The App & Beyond – As I stated everything is coming with customized apps  but does it allow your child to code in a Scratch like environment.  Those are the ones that will truly get them to think and learn.  See my posts here about Scratch as it is a block coding tool like many of these toys use.  Also note if the toy has a developer community. It is here you learn you can also use the traditional programming languages to control the toy.  Now that is VERY cool!!
  5. Contemporary – If your child likes Elmo or Star Wars or another trending topic, look for toys or gadgets that bring these items to life.  It has a play-ability factor that they relate.  They see it on the big screen or small screen and want to interact and control it. Take advantage of that intrinsic motivational aspect.
  6. Fun – Look, toys and gadgets should be fun.  Don’t stress out if the kid opens it up and pushes it aside.  I don’t know how many times a toy or game got put in our toy closet only to resurface months later and the kids played with it for days.   Be patient.  Let them explore it on their own.

My List of Great STEM Toys

(Listed youngest to oldest)

I have broken this out by age from 36months to 14 yrs old and UP.  The ages are simply guides.  You know your child best!

The toys and gadgets I have listed here have links (via my Amazon affiliate account). Please feel free to use it or search it on your own.

Ages: 36 months to 5 yrs

Ages:  36 months to 6 yrs Old

What: Kids connect segments of the Code-a-Pillar and control how it moves left, right, and forward in a variety of combinations while it lights up and makes sounds.

Why I Like It: NO SCREEN!! Also it is Fisher Price and this has been very popular for a few years now. Priced under $30, it encourages young kids to experiment, build, and have fun.  There is no limit to the number of combinations a young person can make as you send it towards specific targets in a room.

Ages:  36 months to 6 yrs old

What: A robot kids can program and interact with while learning to get ready for kindergarten.

Why I Like It: Easy to use!! Another popular device from Fisher Price.  It is a fun, enthusiastic, versatile, and durable little robot that kids build their own patterns for it to follow.

Ages:  36 months to 5 yrs old

What: OSMO is a set of learning games and this one is a great starting place.  It requires an iPad or Amazon Fire Tablet (no Wifi) as kids become engaged with problem solving activities in a very interactive way.

Why I Like It: Osmo has become a very popular system of learning games that do grow as a kid gets older.  So this is not a one time buy and forget about a year later.  I like it because it is a BROADER learning toy that goes beyond just learning how to code.

NOTE:  This link will take you to a broader range of OSMO learning toys that focus on other areas.

Ages:  3 yrs and up

What: It is a friendly wooden robot that you have to help find his way home using hands on blocks which represent a programming language.

Why I Like It: NO SCREEN!! I first saw this toy a year ago and I liked how it got kids to think logically. On the surface it looks like an average wooden toy but its hands on approach can teach kids programming fundamentals even if they do not know how to read. It is a bit pricey but a very cool toy!

Ages:  4 yrs and up

What: Build a maze for Colby the mouse to move through.  It makes noises and lights as as it weaves its way towards the cheese.

Why I Like It: NO SCREEN!! I love the combination of hands on and applying problem solving skills.  That is the best way to learn.  Fun and the PRICE is quite nice!

Ages:  5 yrs and up

What: This doll scooter teaches coding while zipping around the room going on adventures.

Why I Like It: Geared for young girls this app powered scooter is also compatible with other 11″ inch dolls.  More importantly, it teaches girls how to code with a free play mode and a guided mode.

See more SmartGurlz coding toys here.

Ages: 6 yrs and Older

Ages:  6 yrs and up

What: Use colored markers that represent coding commands that your robot will follow.  Then begin coding with OzoBlockly to create code for your program. (What is coding? I explain here

Why I Like It: I first discovered this while attending a learning conference and I loved it.  Now it has evolved with lights and addons.  This is one that gets a young person away from the screen by using markers and paper.

COVID-19:  Gets you away from a screen.

Ages:  6 yrs and up

What: Coder Mindz is the only board game and STEM toy, that teaches Coding and Artificial Intelligence concepts using a fun game play.

Why I Like It: This board game was created by a 9 year old girl and her dad who works in artificial intelligence (AI).  What a great combination!

COVID-19:  Gets you away from a screen.

Ages:  6-14 yrs old

What: Build a code a REAL computer and learn what a Raspberry Pi is (Go Here If Not Sure

Why I Like It: This is a great way to introduce a young person to the core pieces in every computer.  It also introduces a Raspberry Pi.  These devices foster “tinkering” and that is a hallmark trait of all of us who love to code and build things.

NOTE: I placed this in this age section because it is for 6-14 yr old but note that the Raspberry Pi itself can be used by teens AND older!

Ages:  6 yrs old and up

What: Build a working 3D Hand Sensor and learn coding to have “Force” like powers. (What is Coding? – I explain it here),

Why I Like It: I am a HUGE Star Wars fan but I love the toys that teach coding where you not only code but get to build and interact with what you build.  These devices foster “tinkering” and that is a hallmark trait of all of us who love to code and build things.

Ages:  6 yrs old and up

What: Build a working 3D Hand Sensor and learn coding to make frozen fractals, build Olaf, and create your own stories. (What is Coding? – I explain it here),

Why I Like It: I like how Disney uses contemporary topics kids relate and gets them interested in a topic they might not normally give a try.  This is a building and coding activity for any fan of the FROZEN series.

Ages: 7 yrs to 12 yrs

Ages:  7 yrs old to 12 yrs old

What: 847 LEGO pieces that allow you to build at least 5 programmable motorized robots.

Why I Like It: For me, LEGO were an important part of instilling the ability to visualize a 3D space and build it.  This skill became important to me as I grew older.  Also, this kit leads to the Lego Mindstorms which I also touch base on.  All in all this puts a kid on a great path for coding and robotics.

Ages: 8 yrs and Up

Ages:  8yrs and Up

What: Ready to go out of the box, the Dash Robot is voice activated as kids learn programming (aka coding) concepts that will help them succeed in middle school.  DO NOT LET THE LOOKS OF THIS LITTLE GUY FOOL YOU.  It is very cool for an older kid!

Why I Like It: It is compatible with a wide arrange of mobile devices (Apple, Android, and Amazon).  It starts to introduce important logic concepts needed for early coders. 

COVID-19:  This will have your young person on the floor, the hallway, the kitchen…. you get the picture.

Ages:  8 yrs old to 12 yrs old

What: This bundle includes two separate products that are both focused on getting kids to learn real coding. Code Rocket has eight LED lights, a speaker, and two buttons built onto the circuit board. Base Kit has 10 electronic pieces (listed below) that can be plugged together to create tunes, games, light patterns, and more!

Why I Like It: A different language.  If you are interested in challenging your young person with learning a text oriented programming language, C++ (C plus plus) this is it.

Ages:  8 yrs and up

What: Build a real computer using a Raspberry Pi (Learn what a Raspberry Pi is) and learn to code with an approved curriculum used by 1000’s of girls in coding camps.

Why I Like It: Like the Kano kit listed above it introduces basic computing hardware leading kids to explore coding.  Most of all it was created by woman wanting to get young girls interested and passionate about learning coding. (Yes it is for boys too).  The curriculum is expansive and grows year to year.  THIS IS A GREAT INVESTMENT.

Ages:  8 yrs and up

What: Learn to code with this super smart interactive little robot.  It has an Artificial Intelligence capability to that even can sense your expressions (happy or sad).

Why I Like It: We have Anki products in my home and I really like how they keep sending updates that keep it fresh.  But more importantly, I love both these little guys who behave a bit like WALL-E (from Disney) as you can learn to code in a ‘sandbox’ beginner mode or as your skills sharpen a ‘constructor’ mode. 


COVID-19:  These little guys are mobile and will go where your young person goes.

Ages:  8 yrs and up

What: Build, customize, and code your own R2 unit from Star Wars while leveling up their skills. 

Why I Like It:  First, it is R2D2….who wouldn’t want their own R2 unit!  Seriously….little Bits is one of the best hands on electronics learning kits for young people.  There are so many sets and add ons that you can build Internet of Things (IoT) to games.  Like many electronic kits for young people there is no soldering as that can come much later.  MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU young padawan.

Ages:  8 yrs and up

What: Build and customize a voice-activated robotic gripper arm, then transform it into new creative inventions that improve their room, help their community, or save the world.

Why I Like It:  littleBits are one of the funnest kits to work with on the market in my opinion.  Easy to use so it allows you to focus on being creative. However, as you use them, you learn about electronics and Internet of Things (IoT).

Ages:  8 yrs and up

What: Drive right out of the box with a full range of color, light, accelerometer, and gyroscope sensors that can all be programmed.

Why I Like It:  I like Sphero.  PERIOD.  Although this one may be pricey, I like the fact that this can also connect with other platforms (aka devices) such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and a few others.  It started as a Kickstarter last year and hit the market.  It is a very flexible and powerful platform.  I am wondering if Santa has one for my family?

For the parents who want more than BLOCK Coding… this will allow you to code using Javascript and has access to API libraries.  Woah. 

I just received a new Sphero SPRK+ that will go along with my BB-8 the Star Wars Droid.  It is part of the family of robotic devices from Sphero.com that you can control with a smartphone or tablet app and then also program them. 

For younger kids just starting out the app is a cool way to just start having fun and learning the foundations of controlling a robot.  Then you can step it up by learning to code Macros (think of a to-do list approach), OrbBasic, and the OVAL (a full programming language).

Ages: 10 yrs and Older

Ages:  10 yrs and up

What: A coding board game that comes with 120 challenges of increasing difficulty.

Why I Like It:  A great game that gets kids thinking at a GREAT PRICE.  In cybersecurity, you have to learn to think one step (if not more) ahead than your adversary Black Hat Hacker.  This is a great alternative for that kid you want to explore the high job growth field of cybersecurity.

Ages: 12 yrs and Older

Ages:  12 yrs and up

What: Build and code one of the most intelligent and powerful Lego Mindstorm kits.

Why I Like It:  It says 13 to 15 but I do think it is accessible for 12 year olds.  These kits are found in coding and robotic camps, classrooms, and colleges.  It is packed with a powerful mircoprocessor chip (ARM9) and has sensors you can program.  I have seen classes install difference operating systems and program these devices with Java. 

Even though this is a toy….it has tremendous possibilities for kids who are very interested and love to tinker.

Ages:  12 yrs and up

What: Introduces the Arduino hardware and software coding environment.

Why I Like It:  Like the Raspberry Pi, the Arduino is an electronics hardware device that many Makers use to build prototypes.  It is a powerful device that gets young people tinkering which is a hallmark skill/trait of all great coders.  This particular kit is a subset of the much larger family of products called Snap Circuits.  Snapino is a very cool electronics kit for all ages similiar to LittleBits.

This is a great way to teach coding and how you can control electronics.  Snap circuits require no soldering and allow for young people to quickly learn important electrical concepts. Connect it to an Arduino and now you can build various devices.

Ages: 14 yrs and Older

Ages:  14yrs and Up

What: An all in one Raspberry Pi Starter kit.  Not sure what a Raspberry Pi is?  GO HERE

Why I Like It: I use the Raspberry Pi in my classes. We have setup them up to play video games, web servers, and programming platforms for programming the Parrot Mambo (see below). There is an extensive community and tutorials for that young person who likes to ‘tinker’.

I believe anyone who is interested in coding should have a Raspberry Pi.  This is where it all begins.

Ages:  14 yrs and up

What: An easy and safe to pilot programmable drone.

Why I Like It: I have used this particular drone to teach coding. You can use the app and if you have an Apple device, use the block coding tools. There are also several websites that have interfaces to program.  Or if you are into learning how to code, you can write the software using a Raspberry Pi and send the commands to the drone. This drone is A LOT OF FUN!!

Let me know if you have any questions or if you purchased one of these items and share it in our  GetMeCoding Facebook Community!

Share this article with anyone who is looking to get their young person to explore coding.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!!!

GetMeCoding.com Mr Fred

 

 

 

Mr. Fred

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