Coding is one of the most lucrative and essential skills of the 21st century, it’s at the core of every piece of technology which governs your life. From scrolling through social media feeds, to following your sat nav, to the security system which protects your home, these platforms all rely on code to function.
Consequently, demand for the skill is increasing in many different industries, including finance, health care and manufacturing. This has resulted in job growth 12% higher than the market average. Therefore, it seems imperative that we develop these skills in our kids today, to ensure success in the digital world of tomorrow.
Learning to code is like learning any language, in that the earlier you start the more natural it becomes. So when kids learn to code from a young age, they can gain a deeper and richer understanding of programming languages. Nowadays, there are tons of interactive coding toys that break down complex programming concepts and create a way for kids to learn them through play. Starting with preschoolers and ending with teens, we recommended the best STEM toys for coding & programming in 2018.
Best for learning: Coding & Programming Basics
Recommended Age: 3+
Fisher Price’s Code-A-Pillar is an intuitive toy which is designed to introduce basic coding concepts to preschoolers. In order to control the caterpillars movement, you have to arrange the segments in different ways. For more of a challenge kids can use the two targets provided to make the robot caterpillar travel from A to B, which is essentially the basics of programming.
The segments are easy to fit together so perfect for smaller hands, whilst colourful lights, sounds and blinking eyes keep children engaged. The Code-A-Pillar can develop understanding of critical STEM skills like problem solving and sequencing, helping to build the foundations of coding. We think it provides a great introduction to the subject and, as such, recommend it as is one of the best coding toys for preschoolers.
Best for learning: Coding & Programming Basics
Recommended Age: 5+
Aimed at a slightly older audience, the Code & Go Robot Mouse is another hands-on way coding toy for preschoolers to learn programming basics. First, you build a maze using bases, walls and arches. Then place the wedge of cheese at the end and use the coding cards to figure out which path Colby the mouse should take. Finally, program Colby by inputting the sequence into the mouse through the buttons on its back and watch him race to get the cheese!
The set comes with 20 maze idea cards, but after that it’s open ended play. Similar to the Code-A-Pillar, this toy is a great programming toy for preschoolers to introduce them to the initial concepts. It also features bright colours, sounds and lights – great for helping to keep younger ones engaged!
Best for Learning: Intermediate Coding, Robotics
Recommended Age: 6+
The first two toys in our review are great coding toys for preschoolers, but lack any capabilities for higher level learning. More advanced programming toys tend to combine with robotics to produce some of the most innovative toys on the market. Wonder Workshop, which has earned a name as Bill & Melinda Gates’ favorite STEM toy maker as well as multiple other awards, is one such toy maker.
Two robots, Dash & Dot, can be programmed using the intuitive, picture-based Wonder Workshop apps to do a whole range of things! All 5 apps are free, with regular updates to keep things fresh. Starting with basic coding, the tutorials guide kids through more advanced concepts. With literally hundreds of games and experiences to explore, there is something to suit lots of different ages and play styles.
Dot is the entry-level, more basic of these two bots. With the apps, your child can bring the little robot to life by programming Dot to play games, interact with you, display behaviors or become a gadget. For example, use the Wonder app to code Dot to become an energetic alarm clock or become a sensor to alert you of intruders. Next, use the Blockly app to do things like turn the robot into a ticking time bot in the hot potato game, or use Dot to control Dash.
You can also customize the little bot with lots of included accessories. Additionally, there are some really cool expansions available- our favorite being the Lego Brick connectors which really open up the possibilities for open-ended play! The only real downside is that Dot is not mobile, but for the price there is still lots of fun to be had.
Dash is a lot more high-end than Dot, but is packed full of features so it’s easy to justify. State of the art hardware allows Dash to respond to your voice, dance, sing and navigate objects – more like a pet than a toy! The Go, Path and Wonder apps allow you to explore everything that Dash can do. Figure out how all the lights, sounds and sensors work and send the robot on journeys around the house. Using the Blockly app, your child can start to discover higher level coding concepts through exploring variables, events, conditionals and more.
Similar to Dot, there are also a load of accessories. With the Xylo app and Xylophone add on, your kid can program Dash to play songs or make their own tunes. Another cool add on is the launcher, which turns Dash into a mini robot catapult! And of course there’s the Lego attachments, which allow you to modify Dash in any way you can think of. For example, two fans built an ingenious attachment which holds a pen and allows Dash to draw whatever you program him to!
More recently, Wonder Workshop also released a new robot called Cue which is aimed at a slightly older audience than Dash. Find out more in our new releases section. Still not convinced? Check out this awesome video of Dash & Dot in action…it’s not hard to see why we recommend Wonder Workshop as some of the top STEM toys for coding of the year.
Best for learning: Intermediate & Advanced Coding, Robotics, Mechanical Engineering
Recommended Age: 10+
Lego are a household name when it comes to STEM toys, but with a reputation earned through construction toys rather than robotics. However, with the release of Lego Mindstorms they have reinvented themselves as one of the most innovative robotics toy makers on the market.
Lego is creative freedom. With endless ways to assemble thousands of varieties of bricks, the only real limit is your imagination. Yet, with Mindstorms those infinite possibilities just got a little more…infinite! This set gives you the freedom to build your own vehicles, creatures, machines or whatever else your mind can conjure. With 550+ Lego Technic Elements, including touch sensors, colour sensors, infrared sensors, motors & the ARM9 processor, it’s packing some serious hardware!
Download the free app and bring your designs to life by programming the EV3 Brick with the user friendly, drag-and-drop interface. When your ready, you can then download the more advanced EV3 programming software for PC & Mac and let your inner creative run wild…
It is also possible to program the EV3 with more complex text based coding languages like C+ and ROBOTC, find out more in our robotics kits article. Alternatively, you can also control models with a simple remote. We love that there’s so many options for different skill levels, it’s accessible to all but gives options for higher level learning. That said, due to the complexity of the builds we think Mindstorms is more of a coding toy for teens.
The set comes with building instructions for 5 robots, but the rest is up to you! That said, if you are in need of a little inspiration there are many guides and idea books available. The active Lego Mindstorms community is also a great place for support and further inspiration. If you are in any doubt about the potential of this kit, check out this video compilation of the incredible things fans around the world have invented…
Best for learning: Intermediate & Advanced Coding
Recommended Age: 8+
Anki’s goal is to take artificial intelligence (AI) out of labs and into people’s lives, and with this little robot they have done just that. Cozmo is the AI robot sidekick only thought possible in movies. With state of the art facial recognition software, Cozmo can see you and call your name! The more you play and hang out, the more Cozmo develops and evolves a unique personality. There are many games and fun ways to play with Cozmo, but we have just focused on the coding aspect here.
The Software Development Kit (SDK) is where things really get interesting. Using the SDK, you can develop your own custom programs for Cozmo to code entirely new experiences. Anki provide some tutorials which include teaching Cozmo to sing a scale, patrol for intruders or become an alarm clock. The rest is up to your imagination…
With access to higher level functions including the vision system, path & motion planners, behaviour system and animation system, you can do some amazing things. Program Cozmo to recognise specific faces and respond with a behaviour or action, connect to the Twitter API and tweet Cozmo to turn on your smart lights or tap into the animation system and create custom emotions. There really are so many possibilities! Read more about the SDK here.
What’s more, the SDK uses Python which is one of the most widely used and dynamic programming languages. So playing with Cozmo can develop valuable, transferable skills. However, if you feel this might be a little too complex for your child, Anki have also recently released two graphical programming options.
The simplest of these two is sandbox mode, where kids have to drag and drop blocks representing commands for actions, as well as other blocks that define distance, time etc. The second option is called constructor mode and it is a little more complex, allowing kids to learn about loops, functions and variables. This really is the toy of the future, and our list of the best coding STEM toys would not be complete without Cozmo!
Summary of the Top STEM Toys for Learning Coding
This article was written with the intent to show that there are great toys out there for pretty much any age or skill level. Coding is the language of the future and, with the suggestions provided here, learning it can be made fun. A great deal of time and research goes into compiling our reviews, so we hope you’ve found our list of the best STEM toys for programming useful!