With children learning to programme in primary school, coding is the magic word in toy-land right now. Just about every new product on the market, it seems, promises to teach our offspring to be NASA-level programmers by the New Year, all while having the time of their lives.
But, as with any consumer craze, the challenge is to separate out the products that live up to the hype from those that are simply jumping on the bandwagon. We have looked for toys that are genuinely fun as well as having something to teach our children, and which aren’t mind-bogglingly and off-puttingly complicated to use.
The selection below offers options for a range of ages and budgets. It’s worth noting that some of the below require you to have a compatible device, so make sure you check which ones the toy works with before you buy.
Detective Dot Megapack: £18.99, Detective Dot
Nine-year-old tech whizz Detective Dot, an agent of the Children’s Intelligence Agency, is on a mission to investigate teenage trillionare Shelly Belley. The north London start-up behind her is on a mission too: to inspire children to want to be techies rather than princesses. Their website laments the fact that fewer British women take computer science degrees now than they did 10 years ago, and sets out to provide a role model for girls who might one day fix that problem. The mega-pack comes with a Detective Dot book that is a fun story as well as a lesson in coding, a series of “missions” to complete, such as cracking a code or writing an “if statement” using, refreshingly, nothing more high-tech and expensive than a pen and piece of paper. The pack also contains stickers and of course a CIA membership card and personalised letter. Older children (aged eight and above) will love it.
Kano Computer Kit: £139.99, Amazon (screen sold separately, £139.99)
This was our top pick out of the higher-end options. Kano’s Computer Kit is one of those products that makes you marvel at modernity. Yes, it’s a pricey thing, but inside this small orange box is all the gear that a six-year-old – you read right – needs to assemble their own basic laptop and then use it to explore how a computer works and complete scores of coding challenges. It is the sort of thing that makes grandparents think they’ve woken up on a different planet. Kano’s pixel kit (£74.99) and motion sensor kit (£29.99) are cheaper and simpler but also pretty remarkable. Six years old is the lower end of the age range here, and a child of six would certainly need a parent to get involved. This kit has plenty that even tech-savvy tweens will enjoy.
Anki Cozmo Robot: £199.99, John Lewis
This miniature robot from AI specialists Anki will quickly become the family pet. He is weirdly cute, but even more impressive than his ability to hiccup and recognise familiar faces (to a point – he couldn’t tell the difference between my daughters) is the ease with which children can use an app on a phone or tablet to play memory games against them, or to programme sequences that control Cozmo's behaviour. New abilities and upgrades are unlocked as he gets to know his human friends better – presumably he will be running the show by this time next year. Cozmo is genuinely fun for all the family, but it is heavily reliant on a compatible tablet or smartphone, and we had occasional problems with connectivity.
Lego Boost Creative Toolbox: £149.99, Lego
This box of educational fun is aimed at children aged seven to 12, though smart younger children will enjoy it too, with help. It allows you to build five robots and vehicles, one at a time, and then control the finished creations using the app. Kids learn mechanics thanks to the building stage, and programming through the dozens of challenges in the app for which users must direct the robots to complete various tasks. All without realising they are learning at all – genius. Just don’t lose the blocks under the sofa or get them mixed up with standard Lego. You need a compatible tablet to run the app.
Code and Go Robot Mouse Activity Set: £39.53, Amazon
Which primary school-aged child wouldn’t want to programme a robotic mouse to find some cheese? This brightly-coloured kit requires the user to build sequences using playing cards to lead their rodent through a maze to its reward. It introduces basic principles of coding and develops problem-solving prowess while cunningly disguised as any other game. Marketed at kids aged five to nine, but a smart four-year-old would be ok with it, too.
Fisher Price Code-a-Pillar: £54.99, Argos
It’s never too early to learn coding, apparently. This smiley electronic caterpillar aimed at children aged three and upwards breaks into nine segments that can be arranged in different sequences to make the insect move left, right or wiggle. Once they’ve got the hang of that, users can place targets around the room and programme a route so that the toy, complete with its obligatory pre-schooler lights and sounds, can reach it.
Robot Turtles: £26.14, Amazon
This board game began life as a massively successful Kickstarter project in the US and has gone on to be an international hit. It has a simple concept – playing cards with movement instructions on them (turn left/ right/ step forward) are deployed to help robot turtles move around the board and collect jewels. Without realising it, kids learn basic programming – and get suitably furious with siblings who collect their jewels first. The box says “four and up” but children of about three can play on some level with a bit of parental help.
Hasbro FurReal Makers Proto Max: £89.99, John Lewis
This animatronic pup can be programmed using 10 trigger points on its body and an app (needs compatible smartphone or tablet) to have the pet personality of your dreams. Always wanted a dog that spins around and barks when you pet it? Now you can. This robo-doggy is geared at children aged six and above, but younger children will enjoy playing with it even if the coding side of things is beyond them. Its transparent sides mean that the gadget’s inner workings can be inspected too.
Osmo Coding Awbie: £49 (plus £29 for Osmo base), Awbie
The award-winning Osmo series of games allows children aged between six and 12 years old to combine physical pieces with a digital game on an iPad or iPhone, observing how their manipulation of real-life objects affects what happens next on screen. The forthcoming MindRacers game, which involves both Hot Wheels toy cars and an iPad racing strategy game, seems likely to be a big hit. Meanwhile, in the lower-key Awbie, young players place blocks with movement commands in sequence, thus controlling a cute computer game character around the screen in search of strawberries. Computer games without the parental guilt: ideal.
SAM Labs Science Museum Inventor Kit: £71, CPC
SAM Labs has been garnering rave reviews for its high-tech products, which have been described as “robotic Lego”. This Inventor Kit, a collaboration with the excellent Science Museum in London, contains four ingenious little blocks – a light sensor, a buzzer, a motor and a tilt mechanism – that can be used to add a techie twist to a range of home-made gadgets. They connect with software on your computer (again, you need to have one of these) via Bluetooth, eliminating fiddly wires, and there are five step-by-step projects for inventions such as a drum machine and an alarm. Once you’ve nailed those, your imagination is the only limit. Aimed at children of seven and up but the capabilities of these little things are advanced enough to keep tweens occupied.
The Verdict: Coding toys
Detective Dot is a fantastic project that proves you don’t need to spend mega-bucks or have loads of high tech gear to engage children in the principles of coding. For those who do want the hardware, Kano’s kits are lots of fun.