Toys to Help Kids Code

Is your child a budding Bill Gates? These toys will help you find out.

By David Isaac

We’ve come a long way from the Commodore 64. That early personal computer wasn’t meant to be a toy, but it was accessible enough for precocious young programmers to work with. Today, lots of toys and games promise to give your kids a coding leg up. And as a smart parent, you want to pick the right coding games so that, when your children do become towering tech gurus, they’ll remember you fondly and support you in style in your old age. Here are a couple of options that we think deserve a closer look.

Robot for Tots

Recon 6.0 Programmable Rover: SmartLab Toys has produced a robot for children ages 8 and up. The Recon 6.0 offers instruction in basic math, logic, and knowledge of physical surroundings. The rover is 11 inches tall, moves on two tank tracks, and includes a microphone, speaker, and headlights. It plays sound effects (sirens and lasers, for example) or the user’s recorded voice. You can send the rover out on such missions as delivering messages, patrolling, surveillance, or delivering a treat that you’ve conveniently packed in the small cargo hold, which is the perfect size for snacks and juice bottles.

The colorful, easy-to-follow owner’s manual includes ten missions, but your child can program new missions, too. Before sending the rover out, you’ll want to identify the best route, measure distances (a tape measure is included), and program the rover with step-by-step instructions. For example, you can program the rover to advance 1 foot, then turn 90 degrees, then advance 2 feet, and so on. Each mission can consist of to 50 steps.

One great feature of the Recon 6.0 is that it carries all of its controls on board: You don’t need another device to control it. The LED display and key pads are situated on the front of the rover, and that’s where you’ll do all your programming. You’ll probably want to help your child work through the process the first few times, to work through any unexpected complications, but we think you’ll enjoy the time.

The rover retails for $70 from SmartLab Toys, but it may be available for less elsewhere.

Board Games With Secret Code

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Code Master: A board game may not seem like the optimal way to learn about computer programming, but Code Master—a one-player game from ThinkFun for kids ages 8 and up—seems to have cracked the code (so to speak).

Code Master’s goal is simple enough. You move your plastic avatar around the board to collect crystals and reach a portal. The crucial thing is that plotting this movement involves establishing logical, programming-like steps for the avatar to follow. The avatar then moves from space to space in response to an order that you lay out using action pieces on an accompanying guide book. The action pieces and guide book allow you to plan an itinerary for completing the map. In effect, how to run the map successfully is the problem you need to solve. If you don’t reach the portal, you must start over, by resetting your action pieces in an order that will work.

The first few maps are simple. In fact, you’ll probably start wondering when (and if) the game will get challenging. But when it does, a light switch will go off inside your head as you recognize that the maps are looking more and more like circuits or motherboards, and as you see how Code Master is encouraging your child to use logic and think like a computer.

The game comes with a number of plastic playing pieces—including an avatar, a portal, six crystals, twelve action tokens and eight conditional tokens. You also get a map book with ten maps and 60 levels, and an instruction booklet with solutions.

Code Master has won several awards, including Toys Bulletin’s "Best of 2015" and Scholastic Instructor Magazine’s “Teachers’ Pick Award.”

The game retails for $20.

Photo credits: SmartLab Toys, ThinkFun.