The latest high-tech toys can be great fun — but can also help your children to develop important skills for the future
The best educational hightech toys to prepare your children for the future.
The CES show that takes place in Las Vegas every January always makes headlines, even if it’s sometimes dismissed as just “toys for boys.” But there’s another show that happens every January that is meant to be all about toys. Admittedly, London’s Olympia conference centre isn’t as glamorous or glitzy as Vegas, but this year’s Toy Fair had more than its fair share of high-tech highlights.
In amongst all the classic board games that seem to be making a comeback, and the recent barrage of “poop” toys (apparently inspired by Apple’s latest collection of emojis), there was a really strong showing from STEM toys – “science, technology, engineering and math” – that allow young children to have fun whilst also learning skills that will be important for their future education and career prospects.
There have always been toys that use technology to teach children new skills, with many generations of kids causing mayhem at home with chemistry sets and engineering kits, or perhaps leaning toward more artistic tools like Etch A Sketch and Spirograph. But modern tech toys probably started with LEGO back in 1986, when it first introduced LEGO kits that included a motor that could be controlled by a computer. Then, in 1998, LEGO released the hugely popular Mindstorms kits, which included a programmable “intelligent brick” that enabled children to build little robots that could perform a variety of tasks all by themselves. Twenty years later, programming and coding are seen as vital skills, particularly for the future, and there’s now a whole new generation of robot toys available for kids of all ages.
One of the “Hero” awards at this year’s Toy Fair went to Botley, The Coding Robot ($79.99), a cute little two-wheeled robot designed for children as young as five years old. Botley keeps things simple for young children, using “coding cards” to introduce simple programming concepts, with no need for a smartphone or tablet.
If your youngsters are confident enough to handle an iPhone or iPad, they could try the Osmo Explorer Kit ($197, for ages 6+). The Osmo kit includes a number of LEGO-like blocks that represent simple programming commands, along with a special docking stand that transfers those commands to your iPad so that your child can animate and control a little computer-graphics pet on the screen. There are other Osmo games that can help with different skills too, such as the Pizza Co. Game ($39, for ages 5+) that focuses on running a small business and handling money.
As Play-Doh fans in our youth, we’re pleased to see the new Play-Doh Touch ($24.99, for ages 4+), which lets you mould animal shapes and scan them into an iPad to create your own on– screen games and adventures.
Rise of the robots
Step up a couple of grades, and there’s some serious robot action going on.
LEGO is still going strong, of course, and the latest Mindstorms EV3 enables you to create a variety of different robots from a single kit. The EV3 is a little pricey — at $349.99, for ages 10+ — but it’s very sophisticated, and includes components such as touch and light sensors that allow your robots to navigate their way around obstacles all by themselves. And, as well as offering iOS and Android apps for programming your robots, LEGO is one of the few companies that also has a Mac version of its app as well, along with a good selection of tutorial videos on its website to help you get started.
LEGO’s rival, the UK-based Meccano, has its own range of robo-toys, which are less expensive — typically around $100-$200 per kit — although they aren’t so versatile, and tend to focus on creating one specific robot, such as the creepy multi-legged MeccaSpider.
Apple even has a section devoted to robots and other educational toys in its online store, although it’s important to realize that many “app-enabled” drones and robots that are marketed as “educational” are more about play. One example is the Star Wars BB-8 droid by Sphero, whose movements can be controlled by an app on iOS devices, but which teaches coding in a more limited fashion through Apple’s Swift Playgrounds app for iPad (see iFacts for more information).
Some of the best programming and coding robots come from more specialized companies such as UBTECH, with its Jimu range of robots (from $99.99, for ages 8+), or the CleverBot family from Wonder Workshop, which starts at $79.99 for the little Dot robot for ages 6+, going up to $199.99 for the more complex Cue, which is aimed at older children from 11 years upwards.
All of these robots can help with general programming and coding skills, although some are also designed to work with Swift, the latest coding language developed by Apple. These robots are labelled with a special “Code With Swift” logo at Apple’s online store, so if you want your kids to get rich and support you in your old age by designing the next Instagram or WhatsApp, then that’s a good place to get started.
The Play-Doh Touch app helps to combine tactile fun with virtual creativity. Beware the LEGO SPIK3r! This scorpion-like bot is equipped with a crushing claw.
Parker, Your AR Bear by Seedling uses augmented reality technology to interact with your child.