17 STEM-focused gifts to inspire kids to learn coding and love robotics

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17 STEM-focused gifts to inspire kids to learn coding and love robotics

This is the third year we’ve run a STEM-focused gift guide — and if you’re intending to buy a child something fun and quasi-educational in holiday season 2017 it’s fair to say there has never been so many programmable bots and kits to choose from, all pledging to spark or sustain an interest in coding and electronics.

This year’s guide reflects this boom in ‘educational’ techie toys — featuring programmable and controllable robots of all stripes and shapes, as well as some fully fledged learn-to-code computers and a few lower tech alternatives for variety (and those not wanting to give yet another gadget).

Gadget makers are piling into this space because of the ability to charge top dollar for toys that can claim a few STEM smarts. And it’s clear the line between connected devices and learn to code tools is being increasingly blurred — although the jury’s still out on how much lasting educational value any of these gizmos can offer vs more structured learning and guidance.

The impact of a STEM toy will obviously vary from child to child. But the theory at least is that if kids are having fun with technology they’re more likely to be inspired by the topic and want to learn more.

Click that right arrow key to view the gallery (or, if you’re on mobile, just scroll) to see our round up of 2017 gift ideas for budding coders and would-be roboticists. We’ve aimed to cover a full spectrum of age ranges, as well as including options to suit different budgets. Expect robots, lots and lots of robots…

1/17

Codebabies' ABCs of the Web picture book

Start early with this alphabet picture book — written by a web designer — that aims to introduce the under fives to “the language of the web”.

So instead of ‘A is for Aardvark’ you get ‘A is for Anchor tag’… Or, er, just stick with cute animals until the baby in question gets a bit older.

Price: $13

Ages: <5

2/17

Classic wooden abacus

Encourage a good grounding in math from an early age with a classic counting toy that’s been used for millennia. No Internet connection needed.

Price: ~$15

Ages: 3+

Photo credit: Anssi Koskinen under Creative Commons

3/17

Amazon STEM Club toy subscription

If you want to spread your bets on which STEM-focused toy might best inspire your intended recipient Amazon has a subscription service targeting kids across three different age ranges, and costing $20 per month.

You could sign up for a single month if you want to send just one gift, though the subscription auto-renews if you do want to keep on giving.

Price: $20 per month

Age ranges: 3-4; 5-7; 8-13

4/17

Kano Pixel kit

UK startup Kano has been making modular kits for teaching kids coding and electronics for a few years now. It recently branched out into connected device kits — such as this programmable LED array, called the Pixel, which lets kids play around with colored lights via a drag-and-drop coding block interface.

The kit does require kids to have access to a Mac or Windows computer (or one of Kano’s own Pi powered computers) to power the control element — so this isn’t as easily standalone as some other app-controlled gifts.

Price: $80

Ages: 6+

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5/17

LittleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit

Build your own R2D2! What more is there to say?!

Kids get an electronics kit containing all the various modular pieces they need to construct their very own R2D2 — and even mod it, including by adding some household items into the mix. The Droid’s hardware can also be expanded via additional kits and bits from manufacturer LittleBits (though that’s at extra expense).

The Droid is controlled via a companion app and can also be sent on missions. Good gift for budding hardware hackers who also love Star Wars.

Price: $100

Ages: 8-12

6/17

Kamigami bio-inspired build em' yourself bots

These bio-inspired, six-legged insecto-bots — by Dash Robotics — must first be assembled (possible parental help required) and can then be app-controlled and programmed via the companion iOS or Android app.

The robotics look fun in motion but coding options are fairly limited — such as being able to create simple movements or light and sound patterns. So likely best suited for younger kids in the age range.

Price: $50

Ages: 8+

7/17

STEMosaur Cognitoy

This is the second STEM toy from US edtech startup Elemental Path. Children get a box containing the modular pieces of the battery-powered dino-bot. Once they’ve put it together they can interact with it by talking to it. The toy has been designed to listen to questions and serve up age-appropriate, kid-friendly answers.

There’s also a coding panel where kids can use a drag-and-drop code blocks interface to learn about programming principles by getting to change some of the dinosaur’s answers. To use this coding panel the child will need access to a desktop computer.

The STEMosaur Cognitoy is available for pre-order via crowdfunding website Indiegogo — though the startup is guaranteeing to ship domestically in time for the December holiday.

Price: $120

Ages: 7+

8/17

Jimu Robot Meebot Kit

If robots fire the imagination of the child you’re buying for, this Jimu Robot DIY modular Meebot kit might tickle their fancy while also enabling them to graduate to plugging their play into the Swift Playgrounds learning environment for building proper iOS apps — via Apple’s official support for the third party hardware.

After putting the modular bot together kids use a companion app to control it and do things like reprogram its dance moves. For a deeper educational dive they can step up to Swift Playgrounds — where they get to see a breakdown of their code.

Price: $130

Ages: 8+

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9/17

Sphero SPRK+ Robot

Sphero has been around (no pun intended!) for more than five years now, selling app controlled, programmable robotic balls. Its latest model, SPRK+, introduced last year, amps up the educational element via a companion app that lets kids control and program the device using different systems — starting with basic line drawing for beginners, then code blocks as they get more advanced, and finally JavaScript for writing code in text.

Sphero also offers a wide range of lesson plan ideas that are directly aimed at educators (but parents could also get involved) — and which aren’t all just focused on STEM but can range wider.

The SPRK+ Robot is also another gizmo that can plug into Apple’s Swift Playgrounds learning environment.

Price: $130

Ages: 8+

10/17

MagPi magazine subscription

For teens or older kids with access to a Raspberry Pi, a subscription to the Official Raspberry Pi Magazine is a gift that should keep on giving as each edition is packed with scores of ideas and project tutorials to generally maximize the learning potential of the low cost microprocessor. One for kids already getting serious about their hardware hacking.

The full year’s subscription rate for the magazine also currently includes a free Pi Zero W.

Price: 12 issues for $130 (or 6 for $70; or 3 for $37.50)

Ages: Older kids/teens

11/17

Lego Boost Creative Toolbox building & coding kit

Where kids are concerned you probably can’t go wrong with gifting a box of Lego bricks. But if you want a little techie expansion on the basic blocks the Lego Boost Creative Toolbox is its robotics and programming system aimed at 7-year-olds. The kit combines Lego’s distinctive bricks with robotics bits and pieces and a cartoonish drag-and-drop code icons interface for kids to control and interact with the bots.

Five different bots can be built from this kit, including a purring cat and a robot called Vernie who can be made to tell jokes, emit sound effects and perform different actions. Sensor-embedded accessories support further interactions. Kids will need access to (ideally) a tablet to play at programming these robots.

Price: $160

Ages: 7-12

12/17

Airblock modular, programable drone

It might not be the wisest idea to let a child be in charge of a drone but Makeblock‘s Airblock is at least designed to be robust enough to survive playtime (even if your household ornaments might not be).

The modular drone has magnetic connectors so its pieces easily snap together. Several different bot configurations are possible, including a hovercraft mode that can be used on water (or flooring).

The STEM element comes via a companion app for controlling and programming the drones/bots — once again relying on a simplified, drag-and-drop graphical coding environment. But this time kids get to try their hand at pulling off aerial tricks. 

Price: $180

Ages: 8+

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13/17

Anki's Cozmo robot + Code Lab

This Pixar-inspired, facially expressive mini robot pickup truck recently got a power up in the form of support for drag and drop programming via a Code Lab section that’s been added to its companion app. So yeah, every techie toy is becoming a learning toy…

Here kids can play around controlling Cozmo’s actions using yet another Scratch-style blocks based coding system. Sample projects to help them get inspired to program more complex actions include an intruder alarm (the bot packs a camera and can detect faces, pets and more). One for Pixar fans.

Price: $180

Ages: 8+

14/17

Wonder Workshop Cue robot

Wonder Workshop‘s Cue is another talking, programmable, sensor-embedded bot that runs on wheels and injects a little custom personality into its plastic to seek to engage kids with some STEM smarts.

The companion app includes a control mode plus a chat-style interface to help kids learn its various functions. Then there’s both a block-based graphical programming interface for controlling Cue and a text-based coding environment to suit different skill levels.

Price: $200

Ages: 11+

15/17

Kano Computer Kit Complete

If you want to gift more than a controllable robot, Kano’s latest modular kit is a fully fledged computer which kids put together from a few modular pieces. Once constructed, the computer consists of two main bits: A keyboard plus built in touchpad and a separate HD display that houses its Raspberry Pi brain and rechargeable battery. (NB: The display is not a touchscreen.)

There are guided instructions for getting the computer up and running. The device also has a child-friendly, gamified UI also geared towards encouraging kids to engage with learn-to-code quests and puzzles. Equally the Kano computer can be connected to the Internet and used to access mainstream apps like YouTube, WhatsApp and Wikipedia. Its software layer includes parental controls to limit kids’ Internet browsing.

Price: $250

Ages: 6+

16/17

Code Kit from LittleBits

Another STEM device from LittleBits that’s geared towards learning about electronics is this Code Kit of snap together magnetic Arduino bits. The idea being to simplify breadboarding by doing away with the need to get out a soldering iron. The bits are then connected — via computer — with another blocks based graphical coding environment so kids can play around with and program the hardware.

There’s more to this than LittleBits’ Droid kit but also a higher price tag. Here you get a selection of electronic components, including an LED matrix and a speaker, to support multiple projects — such as games and a mock guitar. LittleBits website also offers further educational content and video tutorials for guidance.

Price: $300

Ages: 8+

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17/17

pi-top modular laptop + inventors kit

pi-top is another UK STEM startup that’s been building momentum in the edtech space (and off of the Raspberry Pi). Its newest product is this snazzy green laptop which has a slide out keyboard that reveals an internal workspace — intended for hacking around with hardware.

The laptop is a fully fledged computer that runs pi-top’s STEM-focused software (and is bundled with its learn-to-code Civilization-style game, CeedUniverse) — so it can be used for web browsing and accessing various apps (like word processing software). But it’s also more than that: You also get an ‘inventor’s kit’ of electronics components to support a range of guided hardware DIY projects, including building a music synth and an interactive robot.

The kit is supported by step-by-step digital guides setting out “dozens of invention pathways” for tinkering and building. The startup ships the product globally via its website but the learning laptop is also available via a range of North American distributors — including AdaFruit and BestBuy.

Price: $320

Ages: 8+

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