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The Best Toys That Teach Kids How to Code

The pocket-size Ozobot Evo (ages 8 and up) does not need a screen; instead, it follows commands drawn on paper with color markers. Ozobot even has printable mazes, puzzles and races for Evo to follow. For those looking for more challenging tasks, Ozobot offers a Blockly application for advanced programming.

The Osmo Coding Jam kit (ages 6 to 12) requires a mobile device, but the coding blocks are physical tiles that must be linked together in front of a tablet. The Osmo app (available for the Apple iPhone and iPad) recognizes the sequence and follows the commands on screen. With the complete kit, for instance, children learn how to string together music elements to create their own tunes.

Robotic buddies children can program

Anki’s Cozmo is a tiny robot with a big personality. Credit Anki

For older children, or kids with mobile devices, app-enabled coding toys allow children to drag and drop block-based commands to chain together a sequence of actions. New, more advanced challenges are typically unlocked in each toy as a child progresses.

Hasbro’s FurReal line of robotic pets has been popular since 2002, so adding coding functionality was a logical next step. Like other toys in the line, the FurReal Proto Max (6 and up) has touch points that respond to a tap or stroke. With Hasbro’s coding app, children can program Proto Max to, say, bark when touched on the nose or spin around when patted on the back.

Sphero may be best known for its programmable BB-8 robot that came out two years ago, alongside the movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but it has been making educational robots of all types since 2011. Its latest, the Sphero SPRK+ (ages 8 and up), is a transparent sphere with a programmable gyroscope and accelerometer. It’s waterproof and shockproof, allowing it to roll across hardwood floors, carpets and even outside. And it has a growing online community of students and educators who share collaborative projects using Sphero’s Edu apps.

Cozmo (ages 8 and up) from Anki was originally intended to be a tiny interactive robot with a personality, like a WALL-E in the palm of your hand, and it has dozens of facial expressions on its LED screen that help bring it to life. But the company realized the clever Cozmo could offer a lot more, so it added a coding component based on the Scratch Blocks program. But like the Tamagotchi pets of the 1990s, Cozmo craves attention and will prompt you to feed him or let him play with his three power cubes.

The robots from Wonder Workshop are a little less demanding. The Dot Creativity Kit (ages 6 to 10) provides a steppingstone into coding, while the more advanced Cue (ages 11 and up) can help hone those skills. You really notice the difference after just a few minutes with each. Dot can be programmed to make silly fart noises and play Magic 8 Ball; Cue can be coded using blocks or text with conditions and functions to combine multiple actions.

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If you build it, they’ll feel rewarded

Construction-based coding toys require a lot of time, patience and room, but the payoff is that children can show off their own creations.

With Lego Boost (ages 7 to 12), children can build five different models that come alive through movement and sound. A companion app (available for Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Google Android devices, and Amazon tablets) with pictorial programming language provides guidance for brick-building as well as code building. The models can be programmed to dance, play music and even fart (a common theme with coding toys).

Meccano M.A.X. (ages 10 and up) from Spin Master is a D.I.Y. kit for future engineers. After construction (with the included Meccano screwdriver and wrench), the robot can be personalized with a combination of artificial intelligence downloaded to its “brain,” and customizable programming. Meccano M.A.X. will ask a lot of questions to learn more about you and personalize its reactions to you.

Meccano M.A.X. from Spin Master is a D.I.Y. kit for future engineers. Credit Spin Master

From littleBits, a maker of electronic building block sets, comes the Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit (ages 8 and up). Children are challenged to use modular components like a power source, a motor and a speaker to create a circuit and build a droid that looks and sounds a lot like R2-D2, then reconfigure the parts with household items to create their own droid.

The children weigh in

I had the opportunity to test out several of these coding toys with my brother’s three children: Ava, 8; Will, 6; and Henry, 2. We skipped the construction toys, primarily because they had too many parts and took too long to build. They wanted something that worked right out of the box.

Ava, who already uses Kodable in school, was comfortable using the digital coding blocks to command Dot and Proto Max. Dot had more coding tasks that challenged her, but Proto Max was transparent and had circuitry that she could see.

Less familiar with coding than his sister, Will was drawn to the Osmo Coding Jam, which eased him into creating his own music with simple picture instructions. He shouted with glee as he passed each lesson in the tutorial. I had hoped to entice him with the playful antics of Cozmo, but the setup, which required connecting to its own Wi-Fi network with a password, took too long.

Henry loved the bright lights and loud music emitting from the Code-a-Pillar. The durable construction meant he could bang on it without breaking it. Even though we could not get the Code-a-Pillar to respond to more than five segments at a time, he still liked pushing it around the floor by hand.

The bottom line

For parents choosing one of these toys for their (or someone else’s) children, it’s important to follow the age recommendations offered by the manufacturers. Choose one that is appropriate for not only your child’s age, but his or her skill set and attention span, too. If you need more choices, Wirecutter’s team members list even more coding toys they’ve tested here.

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After all, it’s better to ease children into coding and get them hooked on something right for them that they can then step up from, than to start with something that is too advanced that will collect dust in a corner.

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