What are the best toys to teach children and young adults coding, programming, and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills in a fun way that will actively teach them the new technology skills they will need for the jobs of tomorrow?
We look at the best toys or games that help children understand the basics of coding, and expand their STEM knowledge through play. Robots are popular, and many of the toys don’t require screens, which is probably not what parents would expect for this subject.
There are toys, games, electronics kits and robots for all ages. Keep reading to see some of the best on offer.
Coding and programming are now part of the national curriculum, in order to solve the “skills gap” between the number of technology jobs and the people qualified to fill them. ICT (Information and Communications Technology) has in the past been dominated by dull tutoring of how to use a word processor or PowerPoint and has been replaced by a new “computing” curriculum including coding lessons for children as young as five.
This will appear most scary not to Little Johnny or Jane (with their open minds, inquisitive natures, and love of anything with a keyboard and screen) but to parents who have coding skills equivalent to those of their grandparents – i.e. none.
Coding is really just a sequence of events. When placed in the right order, the correct action happens. When the order is wrong, usually nothing occurs.
For the purposes of this feature, we are describing some products as “toys” or “games” when they are or can be actually a whole lot more. We’ve described them this way because we’re looking at products that kids will want to play and interact with.
For those kids who might be a little less analytical, there’s STEAM, which adds the Arts to STEM for more artistic creativity.
And look out for STREAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Maths.
Not all are computer-based or even require batteries.
If they think that the Educational Thing is a toy they are more likely to play with it, rather than just do it. Learning through play is one of the best ways of picking up new skills, and overcoming what can at first appear rather daunting educational challenges. If you’re looking for something less kid-focused though, take a look at our broader guide to learning to code.
For even more STEM toys check out the range at John Lewis.
Osmo Coding – Use Physical Blocks With Your iPad To Learn Coding
One of our favourite and innovative kids’ games for the iPad is Osmo, which uses a fun Montessori-like method to teach via physical objects – not normally what you’d expect from an iPad game.
Osmo consists of a Base unit that you slot the iPad in portrait mode, and a little plastic mirror cap that fits over the camera so the iPad can ‘see’ what’s happening on the table below. This “Reflective AI technology” allows kids to play with physical items in the real world while still benefiting from the power of iPad technology.
There are several wonderful Osmo games, which we really recommend you take a look at. The latest set of games is Osmo Coding, which are designed to teach coding to kids aged 5-12.
Osmo Coding uses the brilliantly simple Osmo game system. Osmo’s team is made up of former Google software engineers, so you can be sure that these guys know what they’re doing when teaching to code.
Each physical code block contains a unique command (walk, change direction, jump, grab) that can be sequenced with other commands. Combined with parameter, loop, and boolean (if-then) blocks, kids can easily make complex sequences for character Awbie to follow.
Players can see the effects of the coding blocks in real-time before running the actions. It’s like (visual programming language) Scratch meets Lego.
The Osmo Coding Starter Kit includes the Base unit that can be used with all the other Osmo games (maths, drawing, shapes, and more). Add-on game Coding Jam lets kids code to create music.
Sphero Bolt – A Programmable Robot Ball
Kids love robots and it’s hard to find a more playful one than the Sphero, a robot ball that you control via various apps on your smartphone.
Sphero Bolt is a translucent version of the robot ball (about the size of a tennis ball) that packs loads of sensors and a programmable LED matrix, but any of the Sphero models will work with the iOS or Android app – including the much cheaper Sphero Mini, or, if you can get your hands on them, the Star Wars droids including BB-8, BB-9E, and R2-D2.
It’s this app that uses a Scratch-like coding environment that lets you set simple commands to roll, flip, spin or change the colour of the ball. You can dig into the C-based OVAL programming language if you’re more of an advanced programmer but the block-based coding is easy enough for coding beginners.
You drag-&-drop actions (colour, spin, move, change the angle of direction, speed, etc) in simple blocks from the app’s menu, and these commands lock together in whatever order you decide. Changing that order is as easy as moving the blocks around the screen.
There are plenty of sample programs to get you started, and you can change these to quickly get the hang of things. It’s a lot of fun, and a brilliant starter for kids who like to keep moving while learning.
Read our full Sphero Bolt review
OJO makes a range of STREAM games, covering topics from astronomy to robotics.
Not requiring batteries or complex construction, these colourful character-led problem-solving board games are suitable for kids aged 3-8, and should stimulate a child’s curiosity, creativity and critical-thinking skills.
Atomic Force (6+) is a fun way to learn about chemistry, collecting protons, neutrons and electrons, and combing different atoms to form compounds. While battery-free you can download the OJO app for AR features and extra content.
Robot Workshop (5+) is about designing robots (using cardboard tiles rather than metal pieces, cogs and wheels) for space missions. The learning part is understanding what is required to carry out the tasks at hand.
Space Rescuers (5+) teaches kids about the solar system, with the fun part helping to save the universe by clearing up space waste.
Shape Factory (4+) gets to the basics of geometry by getting kids to build shapes that others have to guess correctly for them to score.
Botley The Coding Robot 2.0 – A Great First Proper Coding Toy
The winner of an Innovative Toy of the Year Award in 2019, Botley The Coding Robot is aimed at kids 5-9 (EYFS & KS1). The latest version, Botley 2.0, adds new features, such as advanced object detection function, and the ability to put on a coloured light and dance show.
Kids learn basic programming skills via step coding and logic by getting the robot to manoeuvre and turn, avoid and move objects, plus make sounds.
A great benefit is that it’s screen-free and very Montessori in its tactile nature.
Botley 2.0 can be programmed to create a sequence of up to 150 steps in six different directions. It has a sensor underneath that allows it to follow a black line created with the included 40 coding cards, plus object detection.
16 interactions can transform Botley 2.0 into many guises, including a train, police car or ghost. Its eyes even light up in the dark.
A larger 78-piece Botley 2.0 Activity Set includes remote programmer, detachable arms, six double-sided boards, stickers and 27 obstacle accessories. It comes with two “face masks” (no, not that type) so it can have different looks in orange or blue.
imagiCharm – Best for teen girls (and boys)
imagiLabs is an all-female Swedish startup (springing from Google for Startups and Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp) aiming to bridge the gender divide in coding with imagiCharm, a small but smart device that can be visually customised by coding in a mobile app (iOS and Android).
It’s aimed at teenage girls, but is equally relevant for open-minded, creative boys interested in learning the basics principles of coding.
The imagiCharm’s simple 8-x-8 matrix of 64 LEDs can be coded to display thousands of different designs, such as emojis, digital pets, faces, and flowers.
Coding is based on the powerful Python language, which is a professional level tool but popular as it is not complex to learn. It’s a staple of the Computer Science educational curriculum.
Users will learn real-world applications and therefore the possibilities of programming.
The company sees users attaching the imagiCharm to backpacks, keychains and jackets. Kids can also show off their designs and coding techniques within an in-app community.
Beyond personalising imagiCharm, the imagiLabs app helps girls learn Python coding principles through interactive tutorials.
Agent Asha Gift Pack – screenless coding fun
Shhh… I didn’t tell you, right, but the Children’s Spy Agency (CSA) has a new coding product out, and its mission is to get kids into coding and computer science, as well as becoming critical thinkers.
The Children’s Spy Agency Gift Pack (for ages 7-11) is a spy adventure book and activity pack starring Asha Joshi, who is an 11-year-old coder and secret agent for the Children’s Spy Agency.
Agent Asha teaches kids how to go undercover (internet safety), design gadgets (computer programming), avoid data-hungry baddies (digital literacy), analyse intelligence (fake news) and more.
It’s a story-led, screen-free way into the KS1 and KS2 Computing Curriculum. The book shows how to crack codes and teaches coding basics, and is full of diverse role models and a certain amount of toilet humour.
The big idea is to get all kids prepared for a digital future: fake news, mass surveillance, really annoying siblings, and so on.
Author Sophie Deen worked at Code Club, alongside Google and the UK Department for Education, to help introduce the new coding curriculum in primary schools.
The Agent Asha Gift Pack from Bright Little Labs (creator of Detective Dot) contains everything you need to start a local CSA Unit:
Agent Asha: Mission Shark Bytes adventure storybook (published by Walker Books)
Personalised invitation to the Children’s Spy Agency (CSA)
Six STEM spy training activities
Secret Agent wall map
CSA Secret Agent membership card
CSA gadget cards
Official CSA stickers
Access to the immersive online world of the CSA (iOS/Android app)
There’s also a new Ultimate Spy Coder Bundle (£34.99) that includes everything in the Agent Asha Gift Pack plus three CSA Training Manuals (Spy Identities, Spy Bases + Spy Communications – usually selling for £5.99 each).
All are printed and made sustainably in Britain by fairly paid workers.
DJI RoboMaster S1 – A Coding Toy From The Well Known Drone Brand
The RoboMaster S1 is the first robot of its kind from DJI, and while it might not fly like the majority of DJI products, it’s an engaging robot that helps kids learn to code – as well as being amazingly fun to play with.
On the surface it might look like a standard RC car, complete with mechanum wheels and six 100w brushless motors, but there’s much more to it than that. There’s a creative focus, and that starts when you open the box and find the S1 in 107 pieces ready for you to build.
Once put together, the RoboMaster S1 will be able to see, sense and hear the world around it thanks to a suite of 31 on-board sensors and a stabilised 1080p HD FPV camera. What you do with those sensors is completely up to you, as the majority of the functionality has to be manually coded via Python or Scratch 3.0. It’s a more tactile learning experience than software-based coding classes on the market, giving instant real-world feedback when programming the robot.
You can program the RoboMaster S1 to recognise and follow humans, read signs and recognise gestures by following the various in-app tutorials, allowing you to get creative with your robot, but it’s not limited to pre-defined functionality.
You can program the S1 to guard your bedroom door, get you a can of coke or even sing a song – it’s down to you and what you code. Confident coders and tinkerers can pick up the optional DIY kit that allows you to program additional functionality – like an extendable arm – to your robot.
Coding aside, the S1 provides access to a range of games – some multiplayer, with more coming soon – allowing you to go head-to-head with other S1 units. This can be used as a way to show off your newly coded skills to avoid incoming gunfire and get the upper hand on your opponent, or just a way to blow off steam when you’ve had enough of coding for the day.
It’s certainly not the cheapest option in our chart, but the RoboMaster S1 offers a great blend of entertainment and education – edutainment, if you will – and it’s so much fun to control too.
Artie 3000 and Artie Max – Combine Art With Coding
STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) is great, but some children are naturally more artistically creative, so the new acronym in town is STEAM, which adds the Arts to the educational mix.
Artie 3000, from Educational Insights, is a fun coding robot toy that adds a level of artistic creativity to STEM learning – designed for ages 7 and up.
Kids design code – simply via drag and drop, remote control, and point and click – to make Artie draw the lines they desire.
The robot has even been approved by American Mensa.
No internet connection is required because Artie 3000 comes with his (not sure why Artie has to be a he) own built-in Wi-Fi server, but you do need either a tablet, computer, or phone to control Artie. This means classrooms and homes can run multiple Artie robots simultaneously
There are pre-programmed designs, shapes and games, so beginners can get the hang of it and start coding straight away.
In the box, you get the Artie 3000 robot, four washable markers, a quick start guide, and three activity cards. You need to add the four AA batteries.
The new Artie Max toy adds extra colour with three interchangeable onboard markers instead of Artie’s one, and also teaches the popular C++ coding language alongside the other languages.
Mochi – Great For 3-6-year-olds
This Lego-compatible, screenless coding game is aimed at kids aged 3-6. It helps children learn coding basics in a hands-on way without increasing their screentime.
Players get puzzles to complete and problems to solve. Actually they are creating algorithms and sequences, telling Mochi where to go and what to do. When done correctly, they get instant feedback.
Kids can choose their own adventure from the story library – exploring the planets, colours, ABCs, the inside of a plant cell, Earth’s biomes, and others.
The robot comes with pre-made accessories, or you can add your own Lego or craft to get Mochi ready for the adventure.
Despite not being screen-based, Mochi provides interactive sound, motion, songs, and visual feedback.
Botzees – A Kit With Augmented Reality Puzzles
Botzees is a hand-on coding robotics kit with Augmented Reality puzzles, for kids ages 4-9. The kit combines creativity, construction, and coding.
Kids can program six pre-designed Botzees or create their own from 130 easy-to-grip colourful blocks.
Equipped with two motors, one sensor and Bluetooth connectivity, the robots can be taught to move, drum, dance, make sounds, and light up using the free app (iOS and Android).
Kids learn how to code using easy-to-follow, drag-and-drop code blocks.
30 interactive Augmented Reality puzzles visually teach foundational coding concepts such as sequencing, looping, and conditional coding.
Kano Computer Kit – A Raspberry Pi-based coding computer
The Kano Computer Kit is similar enough to the Piper Kit, in that it’s another chance for kids to construct their own computer powered by a Raspberry Pi.
The Kano kit puts less emphasis on assembling the hardware however, which is a quick, simple process, and instead keeps the focus firmly on the software side. It also has the benefit of including a keyboard with a built-in touchpad (instead of a mouse) – though the cost is there’s no display included, so you’ll need to use the included HDMI cable to connect to a monitor.
Once you get the stylish package up and running, there’s a variety of different coding games and lessons included in the software, a number of which are built into a larger RPG-esque videogame that lets kids design their own character who then explores the world inside the computer, learning how it all works along the way.
Alongside the base Kano kit, you can also buy a DIY screen kit that lets you build a screen and learn exactly how they work and a Pixel Kit that lets you use your coding skills to create interactive light displays.
Elegoo Smart Robot Car Kit – Best For 13+
This robot kit – aimed at ages 13+ – uses an Arduino board, and will help teach programming, hands-on electronics assembling and robotics. Arduino is a popular open-source technology that’s great for input/output operations, and small computations.
It’s composed of a microcontroller, sensors, motors, LEDs, a reset button, and many pins that you can use for input/output.
It contains 24 kinds of module parts, including auto go, obstacle avoidance (via an ultrasonic sensor) and a line-tracing module (via infrared photoelectric sensor).
It comes with an infrared remote control, but can also be controlled via phone/tablet (Android or iOS).
Everything is well packaged, and with minimal plastic waste.
The instructions are well laid out, and with patience you will find it easy to assemble. Don’t rush, though. Building it will teach you a lot about electronics.
This updated version of the Smart Robot Car uses a redesigned expansion board and cables, using XH2.54 interfaces – which should make construction much easier. There are still pins on the board for customisation by more experienced users.
Lego Build, Code and Play Toy – Lego-based Coding For Older Kids
Kids love Lego, right? So, you can still buy a present that’s made by Lego, and help teach children how to code and have fun at the same time.
This Build, Code and Play Toy includes 847 Lego pieces that kids can build and rebuild into five cool multifunctional models – motorized robots, models and creations with distance, colour and tilt sensor technologies.
Kids can construct and code Vernie the Robot to dance, tell jokes and even break wind. They can also rock out on the Guitar4000, foster Frankie the Cat that can purr to express its mood, interact with the Autobuilder that itself build Lego models, or explore a new discovery with the M.T.R.4 (a robust and versatile Multi-Tooled Rover 4).
It includes a Lego Move Hub with Bluetooth connectivity, interactive motor and colour and distance sensor, plus a playmat for use with specific activities, and a LEGO Boost wall poster.
Kano Star Wars The Force Coding Kit – Get Star Wars Fans Into Coding
Also from Kano is the Star Wars The Force Coding Kit, which requires a PC or Mac, iPad or Kindle Fire with Bluetooth.
It’s themed build-it-yourself Bluetooth-connected motion and light sensor that creates a creative coding experience that takes kids (of all ages) on the journey from rookie coder to Jedi master, as they code, create, play, and share Star Wars adventures. This toy brings to life a galaxy of your favourite Star Wars characters, creatures, starships, and sounds with just a wave of your hand.
The Force Coding Kit includes a printed circuit board (PCB) that contains the sensors and LEDs, and a case (light ring, top + bottom case, power button), step-by-step storybook, exclusive Kano Star Wars stickers, interchangeable icons (Rebel Alliance + Galactic Empire), and a couple of AA batteries. It works with a free Star Wars The Force Coding Kit app.
Read our full Kano Star Wars The Force Coding Kit review
Kano Disney Frozen 2 Coding Kit – Get Frozen Fans Into Coding
OK, if Star Wars isn’t your child’s thing, then maybe Frozen is. I’d hate to suggest this one is meant for girls, while the Star Wars version above is for boys – I’d hope Kano is better than that.
The Disney Frozen 2 Coding Kit is a build-it-yourself Bluetooth motion sensor that becomes a creative coding experience, where kids code, create, play, and share Disney Frozen adventures.
What we love about the Kano products is that you have to build the kit yourself, rather than just plug it in or add batteries – so you learn about the board, button, and bits that make up the motion sensor, before connecting it to a compatible device, and bringing it to life.
Kids learn about loops, logic, and variables. Then they can make snowflakes, control blizzards, and conjure their own ice palace with a wave of a hand.
Children get to play with Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf, and find costumes and companions for their avatar.
You get a step-by-step storybook and exclusive Kano Disney Frozen 2 Stickers, along with the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) that contains sensors and LEDs, and a case with light plate, top + bottom case, and power button.
littleBits Droid Inventor Kit – Another Great Kit for Star Wars Fans
We loved the littleBits Droid Inventor Kit when it was first released, giving kids (and, ahem, big kids) the chance to build their very own R2 droid, customise it with different designs and components, and send it out into the world, controlled entirely by their smartphone.
Now it’s even better, thanks to a post-release update that adds in support for coding, so the Droid Inventor Kit is now just as useful for teaching programming skills as it originally was for building an understanding of engineering and electronics.
The drag-and-drop coding system is built on Scratch Blocks, with colour-coded blocks for the droid’s various functions, to make it as easy as possible to program actions in and watch as the little droid carries them out.
There’s also a selection of missions dedicated to coding to add a touch of gamification, encouraging kids to try out the coding mode and walking them through the basics, before leaving them free to explore the functionality to their heart’s content.
Beyond the coding elements, the app includes detailed instructions on assembling the droid in its various configurations, which include the ability to navigate the world on its own, rotate its head, record secret messages, draw, and even navigate with the wave of a hand in the ‘Force Drive’ mode.
As for customisation, the set includes a selection of colourful stickers to decorate the body, but the whole kit is also designed so that you can build the droid out of almost anything – a milk carton for a body, a flower pot for a head, or just about anything else a kid can dream up.
Harry Potter Wand – Get Harry Potter Fans Into Coding
This build-your-own wand is the latest kit from Kano. It combines the six-piece wand with the app for Android, iOS, PC or Mac to encourage kids to learn how to code.
Obviously it’ll really only appeal to Harry Potter fans, but there isn’t exactly a shortage of those.
The wand uses Bluetooth to communicate and has a vibration motor as well as a 9-axis gyroscope so it knows how it’s being moved. Putting it together is pretty simple, and once done, kids have over 70 step-by-step challenges which – naturally – come from the world of Harry Potter.
Once you’ve created your avatar, you can begin your journey, completing these coding games in familiar locations including Hogwarts, Diagon Alley and other places.
The actual coding is done graphically, with pop-up instructions explaining how to assemble jigsaw-puzzle pieces to make your spell work. For example, in one challenge in Weazley’s Wizard Wheezes, you learn to flick Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans into the air. As with similar coding apps, you can test your ‘spell’ at any point by using your wand.
As the tasks become more advanced, you’re prompted to change values in the code itself to see how it affects things, such the size of your fire trail from the wand (which appears on the screen, not out of the actual wand of course).
Dash – The Cutest Coding Toy
Wonder Workshop’s Dash is aimed at children aged 6-11. It’s a six-inch-tall stack of spheres that scoots around on three wheels, one under each part of its body – with a head on top that can move independently. It is covered with lights that you can control, and it can see, hear and speak.
Control is performed through a series of five apps for iOS or Android. All of the apps include tutorials to help your children (and you) learn how to build increasingly complex programs, before setting you free to code away.
A physical toy helps children build a better idea of what coding is for, and who doesn’t like cute robots?
A real robot also offers some neat science lessons along the way. For example, Dash doesn’t actually turn his wheels, he just spins one faster than the other. Your child can set the speeds for each wheel individually, getting them to understand the physics behind this through play and experimentation.
For older or more accomplished coders Wonder has another robot called Cue, which can use more complex code.
Read our full Wonder Workshop Dash Robot review
Cubetto – Best For Pre-Schoolers
Cubetto, from Primo Toys, is a Montessori-approved toy that is aimed at teaching the basics of computer programming to pre-school or early-years kids through hands-on play.
Even modular programming languages such as Scratch are way too complex for kids who can hardly read, so Cubetto brings the concept and possibilities of programming into the real world.
The Cubetto Playset takes the form of a wooden robot that, like ET, needs to go home.
There’s the Cubetto robot box, an interface board, 16 action blocks that are used for the “programming”, a world map, story book and instruction manual (for parents or teachers).
There are four types of block: Forward, Left, Right and Function. Place the blocks on the board to tell Cubetto where to go. Hit the blue button and the Cubetto robot follows these programmed instructions from the player.
The Function block is used to teach the notion of loops and subroutines. Kids should also grasp otherwise complex concepts such as algorithms, the queue, debugging, and recursions.
It’s Montessori approved because it’s very hands-on and made of wood (Linden plywood to be precise), so is tactile to encourage learning. Best of all, there’s no distracting screen.
Cubetto has been designed to be most useful for children aged 3-6, so uses child-friendly language in the stories, and machine-washable maps.
Teachers will be interested in the bank of Cubetto activities (Build a Jetpack, Dance Around a Tree, Create and Navigate a Maze, etc), lesson plans, and other resources to help inspire coding in their classroom.
Bitsbox – A Coding Subscription Box
Bitsbox uses simple coding commands to create cool apps. Kids learn to program by copying and modifying apps and then downloading them to their smartphone or tablet. Every month Bitsbox sends out to subscribers a fun package of programming materials in a box.
In each box there’s a full-colour booklet with between 12 and 20 apps to code, alongside high-quality extras such as trading cards, posters, stickers, non-toxic tattoos and other goodies – even a mystery toy. Kids type in these lines of code on Bitsbox’s virtual tablet on its website. As they type the code they see the app coming to life before their eyes, and once they finish they can download the app on their smartphones/tablets and share it with friends and family.
The idea behind Bitsbox is that kids should actually learn how to write code. This compares to using a visual modular language such as Scratch, which teaches “coding logic” but not how to write in the coding language.
As such it’s a partner to Scratch, or maybe next step for kids who want to get deeper into coding.
Coding logic has often been prioritised over actual coding because many educators feel that it’s too hard for young kids (aged 6-12) to learn such languages. Bitsbox disagrees. Just as young kids are better equipped to learn foreign languages or how to read music than the older students, there is no reason why the language of computers should be any different, says the company.
While it’s possible to download the digital book for a lower price, kids will get more excited and (literally) stick with the program if they receive the full $30 box each month.
Robot Mouse Activity Set – A Simple Introduction To Coding
Aimed squarely at primary school children in science, technology, engineering and maths lessons the Robot Mouse Kit is a cute way to develop coding enthusiasm and critical thinking skills from a young age.
Kids program the battery-driven mouse to find the cheese, and this can be solo or a group game. Through gameplay it provides a basic introduction to the concepts of coding, including Step Coding and Logic.
The flexible kit comes with 16 plastic base pieces, 22 plastic maze walls, 3 tunnel pieces, 30 double-sided coding cards, 20 Sequence cards to plot and track the mouse’s path to the cheese, and a Multilingual activity guide.
There are two coding sets available; the activity set that is complete with the green track or the individual mouse, which comes with coding cards so you can use it on the floor.
ThinkFun Robot Turtles – A Coding Board Game
Another batteries-not-required coding board game is Robot Turtles, which teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 4 and up.
Inspired by the Logo programming language, the game lets kids write programs with playing cards. Players dictate the movements of their Robot Turtle tokens on a game board by playing basic Code Cards: Forward, Left and Right. When a player’s Robot Turtle reaches a jewel they win. If they make a mistake, they can use a Bug Card to undo a move.
The game has Beginner to Advanced levels – as the players advance they encounter obstacles such as Ice Walls, and use more complex Code Cards (like lasers to melt the walls).
Two to five players can play at once and everyone who gets the Robot Jewel wins.
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