Ed­u­ca­tional toys

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.

Early learn­ing

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.

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