I love my job! And this time of year, I am often sought out by parents looking for ideas about how to bring educational technology tools into their home as toys. As a Technology Educator, I am so glad parents are considering giving coding and robotics gifts! Some experts say that learning to code is going to be as important for children today as learning to read and write, as so many of the jobs today’s students will have will require coding skills. Here at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, where I teach and chair the technology education department, we start teaching basic coding skills in junior kindergarten with students who are 4 or 5 years old.
There are a number of 21st-century success skills developed while coding: problem-solving, perseverance, flexible thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication, to name a few. In addition, projects can connect to classroom curriculum in different ways and teach concepts such as spatial awareness, scientific thinking, logical reasoning, creative storytelling, and computational thinking.
Especially in the elementary years, combining robots with coding is powerful. Robots make coding more engaging, interactive, hands-on, and visual. Students see the code they write brought to life by the robot. Robotic toys are a great opportunity for students to play, create, and learn at the same time! Here are a few with which I am familiar:
Kibo robot kits are perfect for 4- and 5-year-old children. These kits were developed by a research group at Tufts University. The child creates a sequence of instructions (a program) using the wooden KIBO blocks. They then scan the blocks with the KIBO body to tell the robot what to do. Finally, they press a button, and the robot comes alive to perform the actions in the sequence set.
Students throughout the Lower School use and love Dash Robots, which are great for ages 6-10. Wonder Workshop has a series of apps that work with Dash as well as accessories available that can help Dash grow with your child. Shown are older elementary students using the xylophone accessory.
Younger students can combine Dash with a Puzzlet for screen-free coding. Each of the puzzlet tiles represents a different action the Dash robot can do. The child creates a sequence of instructions by placing the tiles into the puzzlet tray and then the Dash robot will act out the actions when the play tile is inserted.
Both of the above resources can be screen free, which I really appreciate as it helps the student focus on the coding more than anything else. These tools provide great opportunities for children to practice skills like sequencing, left/right, problem-solving, perseverance, and flexible thinking.
LEGO® Education WeDo 2.0 Core Set
Have a Lego lover at home? Lego Education’s WeDo Sets allow students to build robots with Legos and program them using block coding. The kit includes sensors so children can build motion-activated alligators that chomp or engineer tilt-activated airplanes that make different sounds depending on whether they are ascending or descending. The program contains a number of guided projects and also encourages children to further explore and create to make the projects their own.
Sphero Robotic Balls are durable robots that can be programmed to navigate tape mazes and obstacle courses. They can be coded through drawing, block, or text code, enabling children of different ages to use them. Accessories such as ramps and chariots add to the fun, and the Sphero EDU apps are engaging and user-friendly
Here are some other toys that families have asked about which I don’t use as frequently but could be a good fit for your child.
With this kit, children build a computer from scratch and then learn electronics by playing a series of Minecraft games. I like that students first build the computer and learn how the hardware goes together before using the computer to learn more about coding. They use a block coding, which is what we teach at the Lower and Middle School. Many of our students love Minecraft, so this connection is bound to make coding more fun and engaging.
Ozobots (Bit or Evo)
When I first tried these robots, they were programmed by writing commands in the form of color-coded marks on paper. The robot read the marks and then performed the associated commands. In my experience, the robot did not always correctly read the marks, so I found it somewhat difficult to use. Since then though, the company has added options to program Evo using block coding (ages 9+) and Bit using stickers (ages 6+), so I imagine that helps mitigate that issue. All of the positive reviews make me think they have likely ironed out the glitches I experienced years ago as well. Bit can also be programmed screen-free like several of the above resources.
Remember, it’s all about making learning fun and engaging. Enjoy!