It's easier than ever to find an online tutorial or maker set that kids can tinker with.
Kids are constantly glued to their gadgets: texting friends, playing games, watching (or creating) videos, and sharing selfies. But most children—whether or not they know it yet—are thrilled to have a more hands-on, under-the-hood experience with digital technology.
Parents who want to encourage and inspire their kids to stretch their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) muscles probably already know this, but there's an avalanche of toys and kits claiming to provide just that. Here's a roundup of products that give real, creative, DIY experience of electronics, robotics, and coding to build interest and confidence in the most neophyte techies.
Robo Wunderkind Starter Kit
Young coders will have everything they need to build their own little bots, as well as code and operate them, with the Robo Wunderkind Starter Kit. You get several types of motors and sensors, wheels, a programmable button, an RGB light, and a main block with a speaker, mic, and battery; everything snaps together easily. You use two apps: Robo Code, to set your robot's behaviors; and Robo Play, which lets you remote-control your bot. The former has tutorials and guides you through building projects—and eventually, you can create your own robots. Even better, Lego adapters are included, so you can augment your creations exponentially. Ages 6 to 12.
Microduino Itty Bitty Buggy
A builder kit that's compatible with Lego blocks as well as with other kits from the company, the Microduino Itty Bitty Buggy comes with a base buggy to build on, as well as more than 50 snap-together mobiles with varying functions. Kids can build four fun projects with the kit: a Sloth, Ladybug, Dodo bird, and Alien. They can then code behaviors for their creations using either simple drag-and-drop coding (based on Scratch 3), more sophisticated Python, or even higher-level text-based Arduino IDE (C++). For those who want more, the Microduino Creative Expansion Kit ($19.99) features components for three more projects—or just invent your own. Age 8 and up.
Kano Harry Potter Coding Kit
One of the most original coding toys we've seen, the Kano Harry Potter Coding Kit lets you quickly snap together your own motion-sensitive wand. Through the magic of Bluetooth, the wand interacts with certain tablets or PCs (make sure to check that you have a compatible device before you buy). Using drag-and-drop block code, kids are led through creating programs that are activated by and interact with the wand, including magical creatures, spells, music, and more. Age 6 and up.
Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit
Sold only by Apple, the Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit comes with 12 coding blocks and assorted additional accessories, including a temperature sensor, light sensor, and LED strip. In a maker-type move, it also includes cardboard templates from which you can build a piano, a ukulele, a car, and an LED sword. Needless to say, you'll need an Apple device—specifically, an iPad. The Swift Playgrounds app for iPad lets you start programming what you build in Swift, a coding language created by Apple—paving the way for future iOS app developers. Age 6 and up.
Thames & Kosmos Kids First Coding & Robotics Kit
This kit for would-be coders takes a unique approach. The Thames & Kosmos Kids First Coding & Robotics Kit comes with six stories kids can create. First, they build the robot models (one's a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich) for the story they choose. Then, instead of using a digital device to code the bots, they lay out a series of commands on paper cards, in a logical order, that will result in specific behavior sequences. The robots roll over the cards, commit the commands to memory, and then execute them. It's a simple, fun way to introduce basic coding logic to younger minds. Age 4 and up.
Mand Labs Kit-1
This huge cardboard box holds a wide selection of electronics components, from circuits to sensors—pretty much everything you need to learn basic electricity and electronics concepts. You could probably buy these individually for quite a bit less than the price of the Mand Labs Kit-1, but it offers much more: Included are step-by-step instructions for more than 50 maker projects that start simple and increase in complexity, as well as 9 hours of video instruction. And the box itself can serve as a workstation for junior engineers. Through Dec. 25, the Standard Edition is discounted to $129 and the Premium Edition to $169. Age 8 and up.
Circuit Cubes Whacky Wheels Kit
Does your household contain heaps of colorful little plastic blocks? Circuit Cubes kits offer electronic blocks that work together with Legos. They're a simpler (and less expensive) alternative to LittleBits. The Whacky Wheels kit contains a Battery Cube, Motor Cube, and LED Cube, which connect magnetically, as well as some cutout paper templates; you build a moving chassis, then pop on the templates to create different types of vehicles—and learn circuitry basics as you go. You're then encouraged to use your DIY imagination to create other moving vehicles with your own materials—including but not limited to Legos. There's also a Bright Lights Kit and Smart Art kit, so you can pick the one your kid will respond to best. Ages 8 to 12.
Elenco Snap Circuits STEM Kit
The Snap Circuits STEM kit (for kids 8 and older), one of the company's more elaborate offerings, sells for under $50. It comes with more than 45 circuitry components, including an electrical meter, electromagnets, electric motor/generator, lamps, switches, a compass, and electrodes, along with instructions for 93 projects that range from intros to basic circuitry concepts to making your own spin-draw toy. The parts snap together easily, so no need for tools or soldering. And for those who already own one of the Snap Circuits kits, all the pieces from both kits are compatible. Age 8 and up.
Kano Computer Kit
Building your own computer is a geeky rite of passage, and Kano's 2017 kit lets kids six and older get a beginner's experience, seeing how the basic parts fit and work together. The kit includes a Raspberry Pi 3 (a small computer in its own right, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity), along with a keyboard, case, speaker, cables, memory, the Kano OS, and plenty of apps—you'll need an HDMI monitor. Once the computer's up and running, kids can complete projects and challenges—and learn to code along the way. Age 6 and up.
LittleBits Code Kit
We're fans of LittleBits modular electronics kits; we've awarded them several Editors' Choice awards, most recently to the second-edition Gizmos & Gadgets Kit. The new LittleBits Code Kit is designed to be used in educational settings to introduce kids from third to eighth grades to programming principles, by creating games through coding. LittleBits encourages parents to urge their schools to buy the kit. But if you really want to get your kids involved in coding and are willing to take an active role in the process, you can purchase the kit yourself. It may be overkill for some, but it's a robust solution and an effective tool. Age 8 and up.
Lego Boost Creative Toolbox
For kids who are a bit too young to handle Lego's venerable MindStorms robotics kits, look no further than its Boost Creative Toolbox. Designed to introduce children to coding and robotics, the Boost kit provides building blocks with sensors, motors, and app-based coding to help them build a variety of robotic toys that can respond to stimuli. It's a simple, fun, and relatively affordable approach that teaches the principles of programming, making it worthy of our Editors' Choice designation. Ages 7 to 12.
The tiny, adorable Ozobot Evo fits easily in a kid's pocket, but this bot might just be bigger on the inside: The Evo packs in proximity and optical sensors, and a speaker, among other tech (we kind of love that its shell is transparent, so you can see the actual components). It can do some tricks right out of the box, including following your moving finger and playing songs. But once you connect it to a smartphone, the options widen considerably. You can use Blockly-based code to create routines with movement, sounds, and light; share and explore inventions; and earn stars redeemable for content and avatars. The Evo's portability and unique interactivity with paper and markers make it a great gift. Age 9 and up.
Piper Computer Kit
The terrific (albeit pricey) Piper Computer Kit supplies all the components you need to build a pretty cool-looking kid-size computer, including a Raspberry Pi unit, a laser-cut wood case, a (small) screen, a battery, and a (very small) mouse. That's just the beginning: Once you've put your computer together, you can play games in a special Minecraft mod that shows you how to build hardware projects you can use, in turn, to accomplish goals within the Minecraft universe. Even better, the Piper computer also serves as an actual computer; it goes online, has a word processor, and so on. Ages 7 to 13.