3 Great Toys That Can Help Your Kids Grow Up to Be Coders

Dan Tynan
Kids can have fun playing with these and learn at the same time. (Thinkstock)

You may look back fondly on the toys you grew up with, but most of the time their educational value was pretty nonexistent.

Times have changed. You may have played Go Fish, but your kids can play card games that teach programming fundamentals. Instead of building Erector Sets, they can create autonomous robots and learn how to debug BASIC commands while customizing their connected toys.

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Here are three toys that can help prepare your kids for a future where coding skills are an expectation, not a luxury.

Robot Turtles
In this card-based board game, your child helps his turtle reach a jewel in the center of the board by playing cards with instructions on them (like “step forward” or “go left”). In this scheme, the players are programmers, their turtles are the programs, and the cards are the commands they issue to achieve their goals. When a program doesn’t work, they can throw the “bug” card and start over.

Robot Turtles teaches high-level programming concepts using the lowest tech imaginable — a card-based board game.

Simple enough to be played by a 4-year-old, Robot Turtles encourages kids to break large problems into smaller bits, to work backward from a goal, and to visualize multiple paths toward a solution — in short, what computer programmers do all day long (when they’re not playing pingpong). The $25 game is available at toy stores nationwide starting today. 

MOSS Robotics
Modular Robotics’ MOSS lets you build simple robots using 1-inch blocks held together by magnetic ball bearings, making them a snap — literally — to create. Add sensors, lights, motors, and wheels; program the bots to respond to light, sound, or other input using the Scratch language or C; and then control them with your phone.

Modular Robotics’ MOSS kit lets your kid create a simple robot that reacts to light, sound, motion, and more.

MOSS comes in two kits: the 16-block Zombonitron 1600 ($150), and the massive 52-block Exofabulatronixx 5200 ($480). The downside? As Yahoo Tech’s Rafe Needleman discovered, these bots come apart just as easily as they snap together, and the pieces tend to scatter in all directions. Be sure to clear a wide space for debris before you unleash your 8-year-old on them. Both kits will be available later this month.

Sphero SPRK
The Sphero “smart ball” just got a whole lot smarter. Thanks to an internal processor, accelerometer, and multicolor LEDs, the baseball-sized Sphero 2.0 can roll, spin, change directions, and put on a disco light show with a few taps on your smartphone. Now it can also teach your kids to code.

The Bluetooth-driven Sphero 2.0 is rugged, waterproof, and can pass through flaming hoops of fire (kids, please don’t try this at home).

Last April, Sphero parent company Orbotix introduced its SPRK (schools, parents, robots, kids) programming initiative. This month the company introduced seven more core lessons as part of SPRK (pronounced “spark”). Kids start by downloading two free apps for their Android or iOS phones. MacroLab allows them to send commands to the orb such as “Spin in place” or “Do a figure 8” and string them together in thousands of combinations; OrbBasic uses a version of the classic BASIC programming language to let kids play with the actual code driving the Sphero. Once they’ve mastered the fundamentals, proto-geeks can tackle challenges like programming the Sphero to navigate a maze or to drag an object across a pool of water. In other words, they’ll learn to code and have a ball doing it.