There’s a lot riding on the toys that we buy our children. First and foremost, they will go a long way in keeping them occupied during those evening hours that you would like to get back for yourself. However, this is only the start of their impact; the way they play, and the skills they develop while playing, will slowly shape their interests and hobbies – not to mention their future careers.
Playing around with tech now will not guarantee you are raising the next Elon Musk, but it will definitely help your younglings become more comfortable with the cutting-edge technology available to them. Technology advances so quickly these days that knowing how to understand new gadgets quickly is as valuable a skill as a second language. Who knows what offices will look like by the time they’re grown? Make sure they are ready (and remain busy in the meantime) with any of these toys.
- Recommended ages: 8+ years
- Main features: Battery-powered, movement sensors
- Teaching opportunity: Coding
Robot manufacturer Sphero may be surreptitiously trying to nurture a new generation of robotic engineers with their SPRK. This neat-looking toy can provide kids with a great opportunity to learn the very basic skills that act as the foundation for coding. This small robotic ball is equipped with a set of sensors and lights and has the ability to change directions based on any commands provided on its built-in smartphone app.
- Recommended ages: 8+
- Main features: AAA batteries, adjustable difficulty
- Teaching opportunity: Electricity and problem-solving
Electrical and integrated circuits may be quietly running the world around us, but they are rarely considered safe to play with – at least not without serious safety equipment, and maybe your own driver’s license. If you would like a child of 8 to 10 to experiment with electricity without risking a call to Child Protective Services, try the ThinkFun Circuit Maze.
At first glance, this is a very basic puzzle that just happens to spark. However, it offers 60 different challenges that will teach your children to “play around” its real circuits in order to solve a problem. Little by little, they will stealthily (but safely) learn the fundamental rules of electrical currents – something most of us had to wait until high school to learn.
- Recommended ages: 8+
- Main features: Officially licensed by Marvel, 9V battery included
- Teaching opportunity: Coding, basic mechanics
Great superheroes and serial life-saviors like Tony Stark or Shuri know that it’s not enough to program the perfect AI. You also need to be able to build tools that can turn those commands into reality. If you want to make sure you’re raising a child who will place technology in service of the weaker members of society, the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit will provide them with an early chance to develop those skills.
Roughly inspired by Thanos’ world-ending glove, this interactive gauntlet can be modified or enhanced, teaching your kids some basic mechanical skills in the process. Then, they can use the iPhone or Android apps to program it to shine, sparkle, record battle cries, or perform simple tasks. The materials are all very resilient and designed to withstand crazy experimentation. Eventually, the player will learn what goes where without risking the circuits needed for future play. Programming functions start with basic block-based tasks, but can also support logic (“if… then…”) or loop scenarios.
- Recommended ages: 5 to 8
- Main features: Interactive, developing personality
- Teaching opportunity: Social skills, commands
Before we can grow to love the wonderful opportunities unlocked by robotics, it’s necessary to grasp a more basic understanding of the world that surrounds us. This includes interacting with the people and animals in the world, predicting their movements, and assessing their reactions to our behavior.
Juno, the robotic baby elephant, designed by Wildluvs, offers a great opportunity to develop these skills without harming any real-life pets. This toy was designed for children as young as five years old. It offers lifelike movements, self-taught play, and a “developing personality” suite that will open up more functions as the animal loses its shyness through play. Juno will respond to touch and movement around it, it sings, and it can be taught tricks with its attached peanut.
- Recommended ages: 10+
- Main features: PC, Mac, and smartphone synchronization, up to 1,000x magnification
- Teaching opportunity: Biology, analytical skills, curiosity
A workable toy microscope (one that offers a proper view of things and goes beyond a simple magnifying glass) has always been one of the toy dreams of the future scientist, but it has rarely been as affordable as it is now. By nature, microscopes are usually very delicate equipment, and they need their own table along with careful handling. These have never been the qualities of a practical toy, no matter how good they are at turning ordinary objects into cellular marvels.
The Jiusion Mini Camera offers a great compromise for the future botanist or microbiologist. Halfway between an endoscopic camera and a microscope, this “magnifying camera on a pen” can capture real-time HD images and make them up to 1,000 times bigger. Connect it to a smartphone or desktop computer to get a full view of any circuit, leaf, or jewel lying around the house. This gadget uses a standard USB 2.0 connection. It is also equipped with two rotating knobs that allow you to adjust the view and magnification and are responsive enough to imitate real-life microscopes.
- Recommended ages: 8+
- Main features: Lego-like building, requires Apple suite for programming
- Teaching opportunity: Building and coding
If your goal is to get your kids to learn how to create something feasible and practical, then they will need to combine coding with good design skills. The MeeBot 2.0, recently launched by Ubtech, offers a great opportunity to do just that. This robot needs to be assembled from scratch using a series of snap-together parts, which work a lot like old school LEGO pieces and therefore provide a great degree of flexibility when it comes to customization.
A set of “standard instructions” is included, which will allow you to build what’s on the box, but there is little reason to stop your kids from pushing the limits of the pieces’ structural integrity. All pieces have the option of adjusting to a gear system that will permit electronically controlled movements. On top of that, you can add a few sensors, LED lights, and smooth motors.
You will need an iPad or iPhone in order to run the proprietary Jimu app, which will allow your kids to command and program their final creation. The robot was created to be a “dancing machine,” so it offers a surprising range of movements alongside its cute beat.
- Recommended ages: 10+
- Main features: A full, 50-part electrical circuit, realistic mechanics
- Teaching opportunity: Mechanics and engineering
The Electric Motors Catalyst by Tinkering Labs is meant for slightly older kids, ideally those who already have a stake in robotics. If you have been dealing with a tiny tinkerer throughout primary school and need to keep them occupied before they accidentally destroy the TV, this kit is a great choice.
More than 60 structural parts, engine sections, and adjustable casings offer a near-unlimited amount of possible creations that may result from this Catalyst. The manufacturers have also included 10 “challenge cards” that will incite players to explore the functions at hand while inferring the rules that oversee basic electrical circuits. The batteries and wires are light, sturdy, and can be easily attached to Lego pieces. This means that if your kids have already created a small block-based marvel, they can use this kit to take it to a new level.
- Recommended ages: 2 to 7
- Main features: Powered by AA batteries, Doodling pad, and stencil
- Learning opportunity: Basic fine motor skills, design
If your little blessing is still at the toddler stage, then dreaming of fully programmable robots may count as getting ahead of yourself a little. The science and technology part of the STEAM field will have to wait a few more years, but this is a great time to reinforce some basic skills regarding hand-eye coordination, technical drawing, and even basic writing.
The VTech Write & Learn Creative Centre is a high-end cousin of the old magic boards that generations of kids have played with. However, rather than just a space for doodling, this interactive toy will use subtle animations to guide your kid towards basic spelling and writing (starting by their name), teach them how to grasp their stencil efficiently, and eventually encourage them to begin drawing basic objects.
- Recommended ages: 10 to 16
- Main features: Classic Lego building capabilities and motors
- Learning opportunity: Creativity, 3D schematics
The Lego Air Race Jet is one of the highest ranked products recently launched as part of the Lego Technic line. This is a very realistic miniature jet that can be assembled practically from scratch and offers a significant amount of room for modification.
Lego is often considered a cult brand, as its products often entice people way beyond adulthood. The Lego Air Race Jet may not meet the specifications of classic Lego sets, but it will provide a great welcome into their world. In addition, the inclusion of functional mechanical parts, such as hatches, spinning fans, and wheels, offers a window into mechanics and plane modeling.
- Recommended ages: 5+
- Main features: LED lights, rechargeable batteries, varied sensors
- Learning opportunity: Basic movement and design
The SPHERO programmable robot ball that we reviewed above may be one of the coolest tech toys of the year, but if your kid is not quite up to that challenge (or your budget needs a safer bet), then the Sphero Mini Activity Kit is a great alternative.
This is a 28-piece set that offers a great introduction to movement and obstacle programing. It also offers a great opportunity to explore the potential behind combining different sensors, such as a gyroscope, accelerometer, and distance sensors. It comes with a set of 15 different “challenges” that include obstacle courses, a “drive mode,” and basic programming commands enabled by their proprietary app. These can all be enhanced with common household objects or toys, such as Lego pieces or Jenga blocks.
- Recommended ages: 8+
- Main features: A complete Droid kit, powered by 9V BATTERIES
- Teaching opportunity: Basic coding, creativity
LittleBits is really breaking the mold when it comes to taking advantage of some good old franchise licensing. Their Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit will let your kids build their own miniature R2D2, adapt it, enhance it, and set it off on a series of missions.
This is all accomplished through a seemingly complex but fascinating series of diagrams that will go a long way in introducing them to the world of technical design. The different blocks and parts can be assembled in a number of ways. The only requirement is that the resulting Droid is functional before they can start programming it. Through its dedicated app, you kids will then be able to use pre-written blocks of code, which they will have to combine in order to solve problems, predict actions, and save the galaxy.
- Recommended ages: 8+
- Main features: Powerful magnets and a self-teaching module
- Teaching opportunity: Physics
Science meets magic tricks with the Anti-Gravity “Magnetic Levitation” kit. Few toys have been designed with the explicit purpose of showing off the magnificent potential of STEM fields (rather than just building upon a prior interest), but this is one of them.
Manufacturers 4M have included all the necessary tools to allow kids to perform over 20 different experiments, which all take advantage of the power of magnets. Materials explaining the fundamentals behind the way they work are also included. This kit will challenge the players to lift a pen without touching it, moving screws without their hands, and eventually help them build their own tiny MagLev station.
- Recommended ages: 12+
- Main features: An incredibly complex humanoid robot
- Teaching opportunity: Electrical skills, mechanics, programming
If SPHERO’s toys are meant to act as an introduction to the world of robotics, then the Meccano Meccanoid is the toy equivalent of a GED in the niche. This 4-feet tall little robot can easily acknowledge voice commands and is equipped with “eye-like” motion sensors and fully articulated limbs. It can also be programmed into acting as the occasional butler through its attached app.
The entire kit comes with over 1,200 pieces and several possible ways to assemble into a functional, moving little being. While the “standard” model is adorably human, you can easily build a mechanic animal companion or a toy car as well. Constant manipulation will help attune the robot to a specific voice, while its sensors enable it to recognize a few familiar faces.
- Recommended ages: 10+
- Main features: Remote-controlled, rechargeable batteries
- Teaching opportunity: Hand-eye coordination
Not everything in the technology field has to be linked to inventing new machines. As these get more specialized, knowing how to handle one efficiently and quickly is just an important skill. If you are eager to ensure your kids master it and want to provide them a fun way to do it, try a Mekamon V2 match.
The Mekamon is a highly responsive augmented reality bot that can be made to move around, race, compete, or fight. At first glance, they look a bit like giant plastic spiders – or they will after they’re assembled. However, its long legs provide it with good balance, a cute gait, and the ability to move and climb objects very quickly. When operating in solo mode, it can also interact with the people around it thanks to its realistic personality suite. It can also interact with up to three more Mekamon’s if you are looking to organize an impromptu championship.
- Recommended ages: 6+
- Main features: Smartphone compatibility, expansions available, realistic imagery
- Teaching opportunity: A diverse range of topics
Virtual reality is now everywhere, at least where adult games are concerned. However, safe VR is still hard to find if you are aiming for a younger audience. After all, the riveting dragon battlers of Skyrim may prove a bit too difficult to cope with for a small child.
This doesn’t mean that you should waste the opportunity to expand your child’s horizons and experiences, especially if you can do this without leaving home. This Virtual Reality starter pack allows you to turn your smartphone into a new universe that your children can explore and learn from. There are many “reels” or universes available, so this toy can be expanded indefinitely.
- Recommended ages: 6 to 13
- Main features: Miniature crafting kit, attached start pen
- Teaching opportunity: Crafting, hand-to-eye coordination
Battle rings don’t always appear to be super educational. After all, aren’t there many videogames devoted exactly to that? However, they can provide a valuable experience if you combine them with the task of designing, constructing, and operating your own robots. The 3Doodler Start Robo Sumo was designed to provide an opportunity to tackle all steps of the creative process in a relatively small package.
Each “Sumo” Robot is about as long as an adult’s fingers, but they possess movable joints and can move around with a surprising degree of grace. By assembling them for scratch, installing the moving parts, and learning to operate them, children will learn a bit about physics and mechanics. Use the dedicated app to draft new designs directly on your smartphone.
- Recommended ages: 7 to 12
- Main features: Spirograph, interactive robot
- Teaching opportunity: Art and design, spatial reasoning
The Artie 3000 is an award-winning robot created to teach basic coding, the elegant beauty of geometry, and artistic skills simultaneously. This is why American Mensa (the high IQ society) has recognized Artie as an “honorary member.”
This robot comes with 4 washable markers that Artie can use to draw his designs, which he will leave behind as he rolls around a desk or a piece of paper. His movement can be programmed on a step by step basis, or you can get him to create beautiful mathematically-perfect mandalas and curves. You can program him and preview your designs using a desktop or smartphone app.
- Recommended ages: 10 to 17
- Main features: Realistic and functional engine parts
- Teaching opportunity: Mechanics and physics
No crazy invention will work without a good engine to power it, but that doesn’t mean that you will want your little Elon Musk to break apart your car. Minimize the potential for disaster by providing them with a realistic but less vital V8 Combustion Engine.
This engine comes completely disassembled and in a box, but it includes cooling fans, pistons, lights, and sounds. It will give children an opportunity to play around and test all the different pieces that make a combustion engine work. After finding the right place for all 270 pieces included, it will be impossible to avoid being overtaken by a deep sense of accomplishment. Naturally, in order to keep things eco-friendly, the result will be battery-powered – no need to add gas to the game.