With National STEM Day just around the corner, I want to share some fun new ways to teach your kids how to code (don’t worry, there’s no parental coding experience necessary).
But before I jump into that, let’s talk about the STEM movement, which is all about encouraging kids to pursue their love of science, tech, engineering, and math (hence the acronym). Why is this important? Not only are these study areas rapidly shaping the future job market, they also encourage our kids to think outside the box.
That’s where coding comes in.
As I’ve mentioned before, I believe teaching kids to code early on is just as important as learning a foreign language. Think about it: From our smartphones to our cars, most things we use every day rely in some way on code.
The good news is, coding is slowly making its way into classrooms. But until it makes it into every curriculum, here are seven innovative STEM toys that can jump-start the learning process at home. If you’re lucky, you’ll pick up some mad coding skills in the process, too.
(Ages 4-8) A great pick for beginners, Little Codr ($19.99) conveys basic coding principles through a simple card game you can play together. Here’s how it works: Your kid picks “Action” cards that correspond to basic coding commands – Step Forward, Turn Right, and so on – to create a path for you to follow across the room. If the code doesn’t work (for example, you run into the couch), your kid can “debug” it by moving the cards around. No screens; all fun. An easy in, right?
(Ages 8+) Stumped on what to get the future Steve Jobs in your household? Kano ($299.99) comes with everything you need to build a basic computer from scratch – screen and coding projects included. It sounds complicated but is actually pretty easy, thanks to intuitive design (streamlined and colorful; no tools needed) and a user guide that’s presented as a storybook. Once the computer is built, your kids can use it to learn basic, real-life programming languages that can be directly applied to Kano projects. (If the kit seems a bit pricey, the Kano website has a special offer now through November 14 that gets you $30 off – but either way, it’s a great investment considering how much hands-on learning one kit includes.)
Technology Will Save Us
(Ages 4-12+) Think of Technology Will Save Us kits ($31-$135) as science fair projects for the next generation. With each one, your kid builds a cool tech device she can actually use – from a gaming console that can be hacked and coded to a light-sensitive body movement tracker. The kits that don’t require coding are just as neat: We tried the DIY Synth kit at home (see above), and it was fun for both mom and daughter to set up.
Tynker: Code This Drone
(Ages 6-13) Tynker’s coding platform for kids and Parrot’s awesome drones have joined forces to teach kids to fly. The Code This Drone kit teaches Computer Science fundamentals, enhances creative problem solving and critical thinking skills and loads of S.T.E.M. skills. The result, is a drone you programmed to fly as you wish and even do stunts. Ridiculously fun.
Seedling VR Maze
(Ages 3+) I mentioned the Seedling VR Maze ($99.99-$149.99) in September on the TODAY Show as a great way to combine physical and virtual game play. You construct the marble maze by hand, but then you can fully customize the experience with the app (by adding video game-quality maze blockers, for example). The best part? You can literally “step into” your one-of-a-kind maze using the included VR viewers. Way more fun than an Xbox, IMHO.
(Ages 5-12) Though it’s generally a good idea to limit your kids’ screen use, the Osmo game system ($79-$189) makes the iPad into a tool that enhances physical playtime. With Osmo Coding, your kids use hands-on blocks to maneuver a character on the screen – and get a fun intro to the fundamentals of coding while they’re at it.
(All Ages) Dash ($149.99) is touted as “the robot you always dreamed of having,” and I don’t think that’s far off. It comes ready to use right out of the box, responds to voice commands, and can be customized with apps for seemingly endless play scenarios – from music-making to exploring to creating pranks – all using simple code kids can understand.
You may have heard of Sphero, the programmable robot that’s made its way into classrooms as a hands-on learning tool (read more about it here.) The newest rendition, Sphero SPRK+ ($129.99), lets kids program the robot’s movements with app-operated coding “blocks,” which essentially work as programming drag-and-drop, with some added stuff to geek out about – think built-in Bluetooth and a scratch-proof shell. The Sphero education community is also pretty awesome, allowing classrooms across the nation to collaborate on and share projects. Talk to your kids’ teachers about it if you haven’t already.
Honorable Mention: Project Bloks
Technically these aren’t for sale yet, but they’re definitely worth putting on your radar. Currently in development at Google, Project Bloks look a lot like the ones you grew up playing with: a variety of squares, circles, and other shapes. But these blocks are actually a group of brain boards, base boards, and pucks that can be assembled and programmed with kids’ instructions to control other objects, like a toy robot across the room. More proof that the future is here.
Have you found any STEM toys you and your kids love? Tell me which ones and why in the comments below.