One of the great joys of grandparenting is picking out the perfect gift to make the little ones in your life giddy. Toys today are more high tech than ever, but more than that, many of the absolute best toys do more than just encourage play–they also help teach kids the basics of science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM for short). For our Tech Toys Gifts 2018, we’ve gone through a lot of toys this year to find the ones that will wow them and keep them thinking.
Lego App-Controlled Batmobile – Build and Drive Like Lego Batman: It’s hard to go wrong with Legos for most kids (and, honestly, a lot of adults), but the brick company has been embracing new and engaging ways to incorporate tech into their tried and true building models. While their Boost robotic kit is already great, they’ve expanded parts of that tech to new models, such as adding actual motors to the tank-like App-Controlled Batmobile. The result is a vehicle as much fun to drive as it is to build. Like Boost and many other such toys, this one requires either a tablet or phone to control – just download the app, follow the instructions, and go. Tough wheels let it travel over carpeting and any flooring we tried with ease, although we wouldn’t take it off-roading. $100 from Amazon.
UBTECH Jimu UnicornBot and Overdrive Kits – Lego isn’t the Only Building Toy Game in Town: Last year, we loved the quirky Jimu robot building kits that smartly mixed Lego-style building with robotics and coding lessons. This year, UBTECH has released two new kits that should cover an even wider range of kids’ tastes. The UnicornBot is exactly what the name suggests – a robot unicorn you build and then control through the Jimu app on a smart device.
The Overdrive Kit lets kids build construction-themed vehicles like the dozer bot. And of course, once they get the hang of these kits, their imagination can take over. Jimu’s app is a great mix of simple of RC-like – that is Radio Control-like – controls for just playing around with your creations and a surprisingly in-depth programming counterpart that teaches kids coding logic and problem-solving. We love the whole line. Both the UnicornBot and Overdrive kits are $120 at Amazon.
Ozobot Evo – Little Bot with Big (Coding) Aspirations: We first came across these adorable little robots in STEM classes for elementary school-aged kids. An array of sensors and programmed behaviors make the Ozobot Evo fun to just play with, but those initial interactions pave the way to the app’s real focus: teaching kids to create their own routines and behaviors for the bot. Like most coding-centric toys, Ozobot uses a very visual, drag and drop coding language to ease kids into the type of logical thinking required for understanding and conquering computer languages. For kids who like to tinker and experiment, however, the Ozobot Evo is a powerful edutainment tool in a tiny package. $100 at Amazon.
Anki Cozmo (Limited Edition) and Vector – RoboPets-meet-Coding Champs: There’s something to be said for the idea that maybe robots make better “pets” for kids than actual animals. They don’t smell, you can turn them off, and they won’t die if you forget to feed them. Such is the case with Anki’s absurdly cute line of little dozer-like robots. Cozmo is definitely the choice for younger kids who can use the app to maintain the little fella with little mini-games to “feed” and “repair” it. Cozmo can play games, do fun tricks (especially with its included cubes), and learn to recognize people. If they want to get more advanced, it also has an array of coding tools (much like the Ozobot Evo) that allow kids to create their own challenges for Cozmo.
The Vector is actually marketed at adults but really is ideally suited for older kids who want a more advanced Cozmo. Vector uses Wi-Fi to stay connected to the Internet, so isn’t entirely reliant on the mobile app like Cozmo. It has more advanced senses and recognition skills, can talk, and answer an array of questions. You can set times, check the weather, ask it to define words, and search the net for information. An upcoming enhancement will even add Amazon Alexa support and functionality. Just like Cozmo, Vector is utterly adorable and fun to just play around with, but the deeper kids want to delve into its potential, the more they’ll find to do. At Amazon, Cozmo is under $150 and Vector is $250.
Littlebits Base Inventor Kit and Electronic Music Inventor Kit – Perfect for Budding Engineers and Inventors: If you have a real tinkerer on your list, it’s hard to beat LittleBits line of clever, yet easy to use and durable invention kits. Unlike any of the other building and coding kits on the list, the Littlebits sets feel more like engineering and inventing than just building and coding robots. The simple circuit designs let kids mix and match physical circuits, wires, sensors, and other units (which connect to each other magnetically) to invent quirky devices. The app offers an array of construction plans for your specific kit or kids can create their own machines. There’s an interesting sense of community with Littlebits products as well. The company is heavily invested in school curriculum and offers a ton of online tutorial videos for both engineering and coding.
While we like the Base Inventor Kit a lot, if your youngster is more musically inclined (or just likes making noises), the Electronic Music Inventor Kit is a great choice. Both the Base Inventor Kit and Music Inventor Kit are under $100 at Amazon.
Kano’s Computer Kit – Computer Science in a Box: The Kano Computer Kit is specifically geared toward kids who are really interested in how the world of computers works. Using a tiny Raspberry Pi 3 motherboard, this is essentially a do-it-yourself computer chuck full of experiments, challenges, and fun. It has the intention of teaching kids not just how to program, but to understand the ins and outs of operating systems and other aspects of PCs that are usually confined to lectures in university computer science departments. It’s not for everyone since it does require effort and time to learn. Thankfully, the installed Kano OS gamifies the process of how computers and coding work, and keeps kids involved by providing a myriad of different challenges and activities.
If you want something a little less hardcore, we also like the considerably cheaper Pixel Kit. Essentially a light board kids construct and then connect to the PC app (it requires a connection to an actual computer, not a tablet device) to create simple programs. The Pixel is bright, colorful, and caters to the imagination nicely. The Computer Kit is under $140 and the Pixel Kit is $50 at Amazon.
Lego Duplo Steam Train – Model Train Fun for the Little Ones: Tech toys aren’t just for the big kids! Lego’s Duplo line has long been the gateway toy to Lego addiction, but as a preschooler’s first train set, the Duplo Steam Train is top notch. It contains enough track for a nice oval that keeps everything in easy reach, has a couple of characters, and a small structure to build. The battery-powered train is super simple to use – just push it forward and it goes. Better yet, the set contains special command tabs you can set on the track to make the train stop, reverse, blink its lights, and toot the whistle. There’s an accompanying mobile app that lets little engineers control the train remotely, but it’s entirely optional, which is just how we like things. Under $50 at Amazon.
Osmo Starter Kits and Osmo Detective Agency – Real World Interactivity Mixed with iPad Screens: Osmo has been adding educational value to tablet time for a few years now and regularly releases new activity kits designed to teach younger kids reading, math, and problem-solving skills. If the kids already have the base Osmo, the newest kit, Osmo Detective Agency, has a distinct Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego vibe, focusing on geography skills and puzzles.
For newcomers to the Osmo, it requires an iPad (some kits also work on certain Amazon Fire tablets) and uses an adaptor to aim the camera down so it can see what children are playing or interacting with in the real world (such as drawing pictures). As kids do things in front of the iPad, they can see their actions affect something on the screen. We recommend the Osmo Creative Kit or Genius Kit as good starters. Under $70 or $50 for the Base Kits and $40 for the Detective Agency at Amazon.
Cubelets Discovery Set – Robotics Meets Blocks: Remember simple wooden alphabet blocks? This is the next generation. Cubelets are small cubes packed with tech, including sensors, wheels, processors, and more. Kids combine different cubes in different ways to create new results. From a little rolling cube train to lights that go on and off based on motions sensors, this pack offers a ton of creative experimentation in how one block affects others. When kids have had enough of playing with the blocks all by themselves, there’s an included Bluetooth adaptor to connect to the mobile app for more advanced features like changing a block’s function. Also of note is the ability to decorate the blocks with Legos to really add that personal touch. $140 from Amazon.
STone8 Interactive Friend – Your Entry-Level RoboFriend: The STone8 is a perfect starter robotic pal for kids who might be too young for the more advanced models like Cozmo. Using its light-up eyes and antenna, along with plenty of very R2D2-like sounds to express reactions, this cute little bot packs in enough sensors to roll around the room on its own and responds to kids handling it. It will even interact with other STone8 robots and respond to sounds kids make to attract its attention. If you connect it to the mobile app, kids can do even more, like control it directly and work out a dance routine of sweet moves. While it’s certainly not attempting to be particularly educational, the STone8 is advanced enough to entertain but not nearly as pricey as the STEM-focused models. Oddly available only at Target ($45).