Cool Robot Kits for Your Kids

Time to geek out with the little ones.

By David Isaac

Robot kits just keep getting better and better. It's enough to make you wish you were a kid again. Luckily, robot kits are the kind of thing that brings parents and children together. Your kids will be grateful for the help as they get the hang of it—and in the process, they'll become more skillful tinkerers and programmers. For kids who are just getting started, these three robot kits are worth a look.

Mindstorms EV3

Lego knows about building, so it's no surprise that the company would get into the robot-building game. Lego's Mindstorms sets provide everything you and your kid will need to start building sophisticated robots. They can be programmed to fire plastic balls, smash ice, and—in the case of the slithering robot—strike with fangs. (Am I the only one to notice that all of these actions are destructive? Skynet here we come!) You can control your robot's actions remotely via a smartphone or tablet, or load it with preprogrammed commands.

Lego provides complete building instructions and programming missions for five robots, from a tracking robot to a scorpion robot. However, you can build many more using the same basic set; Lego features some of these, which fans have created, on its site.

In a Mindstorms set, a programmable brick serves as the brains of the operation. You also get three servo motors, a color sensor that measures light and detects up to seven colors, a touch sensor, an infrared beacon, 550 Lego Technic pieces, and decorative decals. Standard Lego pieces will connect to most of the Technic pieces, so you can build out from the actual set. You can also daisy-chain programmable bricks to build much larger robots. Lego Mindstorms EV3 retails for $350.

mBot Robot Kit v1.1

The Makeblock mBot Robot kit v1.1 is easy to put together. All you need is a screwdriver and 20 minutes of assembly time. The mBot looks cute, with a smiley face and tubular metal eyes. And those eyes can see: They contain a sensor that helps the mBot avoid crashing into walls and other objects. If it does crash, its sturdy aluminum construction resists damage. The mBot also flashes colored lights and beeps.

The mBot is a great tool for teaching kids entry-level programming. It uses a version of Scratch 2.0, a graphical programming language whose drag-and-drop functionality makes controlling the mBot's functions easy for children. You send commands via Bluetooth from an iOS or Android device or by using the included remote and an mBot app, essentially turning the robot into a remote-controlled car.

The mBot v1.1 retails for $95. Makeblock offers some great add-ons, too, like its Me Sound Sensor ($6), which detects the intensity of sound, and its Me LED Matrix ($10), which gives the mBot an eye upgrade so that it can make expressions, animations, and scrolling captions, and even display the time.  Makeblock offers many other parts on its website. It's definitely worth checking out.

Electric Motors Catalyst

Tinkering Labs is a new company, established only last year. Its Electric Motors Catalyst kit ($45) is a great way to get your kid learning how to build things with motors. The kit is versatile. You're not limited to a single robot, but can create several robots—a scorpion, a racecar, a "doodlebot," and others, as shown in the video below. The set comes with "challenge cards" that call on kids to do such things as build a machine that can scramble an egg and make a vehicle with a suspension system.

The Electric Motors Catalyst kit comes in a box on which all the parts are shown, for easy identification. It also includes a guide, a safety card, and ten challenge cards—plus a battery pack, axles, rubber bands, nuts and bolts, two electric motors, wooden parts, a screwdriver and safety glasses. You even get magic markers, and a sheet to doodle on. In other words, the kit has everything you need to get started.

Credits: TriStar Pictures, Lego, Makeblock, Tinkering Labs.