10 gizmos and gifts to encourage kids to learn to code

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10 gizmos and gifts to encourage kids to learn to code

Welcome to the 2016 TechCrunch Holiday Gift Guide! We’ll be rolling out a bunch of guides leading up to Christmas, hopefully making your holiday shopping a little easier. Looking for gifts for others on your list? Check out our full 2016 Gift Guide Hub.

Think you’ve got a budding coder in your house?

The learn-to-code space has no shortage of ideas to inspire young minds and help them get to grips with programming logic. We’ve rounded up some of the best stuff we’ve seen recently, from toys which aim to encourage learning via play, to connected hardware kits focused on inventing and project-making, to gamified software learning environments for those happy to gift a subscription.

Prices range from a few dollars for an in-app purchase to around $200 for fancier gadgets. Whether you’re buying a gift for a three year old or a tricky teen you’ll find something to consider here.


Cubetto Playset

If you’re after an inspiring gift for younger children, aged three to six years old, then Primo Toys’ Cubetto Playset might be just the logic-based playset you’re looking for. It’s pitched as a toy to teach kids coding principles before they can read or write.

The wooden robot on wheels is ‘programmed’ by kids placing direction and function instruction blocks into a physical control panel board. There’s no app required — just batteries and Bluetooth linking the bot to the board. Also included: storybooks and colorful mats (aka maps) for the robot to roll around on, and which are designed to give kids ideas on how to instruct their robot.

Price: $225


Sam Labs Inventor Kit

London-based learn-to-code startup Sam Labs has focused its education efforts on simplifying the Internet of Things, and now has a range of hardware bits plus a drag-and-drop coding tool (called the Sam Space app, for Windows or Mac) aimed at helping kids build their own connected devices using a handful of its Bluetooth modules. Its coding tool also supports adding custom features to projects by typing Javascript commands — extending the code learning environment beyond a visual language.

Modules can be purchased individually, as needed, and include buttons, LED lights, servos, sliders, tilt sensors, heat sensors, light sensors, DC motors, buzzers and more. The startup also sells a few kits — such as the Inventor Kit (pictured left), which has enough bits and bobs to create five step-by-step projects –including a morse code device, an alarm and a mini drum machine. Sam Labs says its tech is suitable for kids aged seven and up.

Kit price: £99 (product ships to the US)


BBC micro:bit programmable board

The BBC micro:bit is a programmable board designed with budding hardware hackers in mind. Its creator, the publicly funded BBC (as in the British Broadcasting Corporation) has a educational remit — which explains why it’s dabbling in the STEM space. The benefit for buyers is free access to a range of online tutorials and code editors to help kids get the most out of the hardware.

What can kids actually do with the micro:bit? There’s a programmable LED display, buttons, motion detector and sensors on board — all of which can be controlled via drag-and-drop code block editors, or a text ieditor to push coding skills further. Code instructions are pushed to the board via Bluetooth. The micro:bit website includes multiple ideas for projects to create using the open dev board. It was originally conceived with 11- and 12-year-olds in mind — but would likely be suitable for teens too.

Price: $29


pi-topCEED desktop computer

For a more fully featured hardware hacking and learn to code environment check out the pi-topCEED: a Raspberry Pi-powered desktop computer. The London-based startup has skinned the Pi’s native Raspbian OS with their own easy-to-use software layer, and built a bespoke MMORG (called CEED Universe) which aims to teach kids coding while they play. And yes, Minecraft will also run on the device. The desktop is designed for ages 8 and above.

The hardware rail under the pi-topCEED’s 14″ HD screen is there to house the Pi needed to power the machine but also other bits of add-on hardware — such as optional extra speakers, and the pi-topPROTO: a board designed for prototyping electronics. It’s a sophisticated learning environment which the startup says is proving popular with schools — not least because of a competitive price point. So it’s probably most suitable for older kids.

From: $115 (without Pi)
(NB: you’ll also need to buy or have your own keyboard and mouse.)


The Official Raspberry Pi Projects books

For kids who already own a Raspberry Pi, but maybe aren’t getting the most out of the programmable hardware, the makers of the official Raspberry Pi magazine, MagPi, have put together a couple of project books offering illustrated guidance on getting started plus detailed project ideas.

The newer book, volume 2, includes projects that can be pretty involved, such as building a retro gaming console or a custom wrist-wearable computer, but for older kids who also have access to tools then there’s plenty to get their teeth into here. And while a digital version of the book can be downloaded for free, the printed volume makes for a far better gift.

From: $16


Flybrix build your own LEGO drone kits

SF-based startup Flybrix is combining LEGO and drones in kits designed to let children build their own flying creations. The philosophy is plug-and-play, with no soldering required. Kits comprise LEGO bricks, boom arms and motors, plus other off the shelf and Flybrix-designed parts.

The basic kit includes around 40 pieces and instructions on how to build a small quadcopter. Pricier kits allow for building more complex models and include ideas and games that require kids to modify a basic design, and figure out how to make their own drones. The kits are aimed at kids aged 14 and up.

From: $189


Box Island learn to code game

If you’re buying for a child who already has access to a smartphone or tablet then learn-to-code puzzle game Box Island could be a cost-effect option for encouraging programming. It’s a free download for Android and iOS including ten levels. After that a selection of in-app purchase pricing tiers unlock more levels — the entire 90 levels of the game can be bought for $7.99.

The player controls a cube-shaped character called Hiro whose mission is to solve puzzles in a bespoke 3D world — with the gameplay requiring the application of basic algorithms, pattern recognition, sequences, loops and conditionals in order to solve problems and start grasping some coding fundamentals. The team behind Box Island reckons its suitable for kids of “all ages”. The game elements have also been intentionally designed to be gender neutral to avoid skewing the appeal.

In-app purchases from: $2.99


CK for Modding subscription service

If you’re buying for a Minecraft enthusiast then London-based startup CK (formerly Code Kingdoms) now has a subscription service aimed at teaching Java via the child-friendly medium of Minecraft modding.

The CK for Modding service — which piggybacks on the enduring popularity of the block-based 3D world — is priced at £9.99 ($14.99) a month, for which kids get access to 40+ hours of coding course materials (including interactive videos), a fully customisable Minecraft server, access to CK’s web based code editor (pictured) and online support.

From: $14.99 per month


Mimo learn to code app

Mimo is a mobile learning app that breaks computer science courses into bite size lessons designed for consuming on the go, lasting about a minute each. Course content includes Swift, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, Ruby and SQL.

While it’s not specifically designed with kids in mind, the bite-size format and structured interface might appeal to smartphone-owning teens with an interest in learning programming. The app is also gamified and interactive, encouraging active rather than passive learning to help learners keep focused and motivated.

While Mimo offers some content for free, full access requires a subscription — with monthly, yearly and lifetime options available. It’s currently iOS only but an Android version is slated as coming soon.

In-app purchases from: $9.49


Tynker code learning subscription service

If you’re looking to buy a gift for a child who is already pretty keen on learning coding, Tynker‘s gamified learning environment is a safe bet. The startup takes a broad approach, creating a wide range of apps and curricula for teaching coding on its platform, including daily challenges, tools to build and share games, Minecraft-focused courses and mobile app development tools.

It also partners with robotics device makers, such as drone maker Parrot, so its software tools can be used to control physical objects — enabling real-world feedback to be plugged into its learning system. And as well as visual code block tools aimed at simplifying coding for beginners, there’s a path for kids to progress to text-based coding — in programming languages including Python and JavaScript. Tynker’s set-up also includes a dashboard view for parents to monitor their kids’ progress.

The startup does offer some free coding games on its website, structured for different age grades, but access to all its learning paths, and 15+ programming courses, is via subscription (the price of which also includes a Minecraft server).

From: $48 per quarter