Barely a week goes by now without some dire prophetic warning about how all our jobs will be replaced by robots and how none of the jobs our children will do even exist yet. But, given coding is now part of the curriculum for children as young as five, it’s surely about time they started inventing their own livelihoods, the young slackers. Fortunately, toys and games that encourage and develop coding skills for kids are seeing something of an explosion, with even the big brands getting in on the act, such as Lego with its new build-and-code Wall-E-esque robot.
However, plenty of parents still fret about “screen time”– as if all screen time is equal, just passive activity akin to lying semi-comatose on the sofa mainlining a Netflix boxset (something reserved for us grownups, clearly). Yet a search of any toy store, game-reviews site or Amazon’s Shop the Future toy section reveals coding apps, games and physical toys can all help develop skills that children will almost certainly spend their rest of their lives using. So why not give them a head start, especially when many of the newest games are fun, absorbing and considerably more educational than Paw Patrol on repeat.
These games now start with a very young demographic – from Fisher Price’s pre-school Code-a-Pillar to Learning Resources’ Code and Go robot mouse, ideal for the first years of primary school. Then there are Dot and Dash (programmable robots) and the Kano sets, which allow children to build their own computers and then program them to do anything from turning the lights off to reinventing Pong. Or Sam Labs’ Curious Cars, which let you build vehicles (the set is compatible with Lego, so you can soup them up good ’n’ proper) and program them to race.
Some of these games can be on the pricey side, but plenty combine stealth Stem-learning with a lot of fun for a good birthday- or Christmas-present price – such as the K’nex fairground-ride building set (£39.99). The pictures on the box look dauntingly complex, but the instructions are simple and straightforward and, as with Lego, children as young as seven should be able to assemble it with minimal help. In place of plastic bricks, you have rods, connectors and spacers – and a battery-powered motor – but the same pieces can be used to create different models (three, in this set). The idea is to get kids to grips with the technology and engineering that would go into building real fairground rides. This means that once the model is assembled, there is still more to learn – about speed, space, time and the relationship between them when it comes to whizzing around a fairground ride screaming your lungs out.
K’nex systems exist purely in the real world, but plenty of games now use a hybrid of app and physical interaction. Beasts of Balance (£69) is a combination of board game and app. The purpose is to build a tower of the (physical) animal pieces as high as possible, on top of the battery-powered base. That base is a reader that scans for the pieces and feeds back to the app via Bluetooth, bringing them to life on the screen. As you play on, you can combine or crossbreed these animals into new, ever more fantastical creatures.
The game is designed to encourage cooperative play, although children (or is that just mine?) seem to have an uncanny ability to turn it into a competition, no matter how many times you utter the words: “Teamwork, kids!” It’s hard to say which appeals more to parents or kids – adding a social element to an app, or adding technology to a board game – but the result is hugely enjoyable and absorbing, one of those rare games that is genuinely enjoyable for all ages.
Osmo (£89.99 for all three games) has a more straightforwardly “educational” slant. It comes with a few different games but all work in the same way: you set up your tablet on the base provided. Configuration is easy and quick. Clipping a small mirror over the camera at the top allows the game to magically (well, it’s magic if you are five) see what you are doing with the physical pieces. In the Tangram game, you have a variety of simple shape pieces that you must put together to match the one on the screen. Once you are successful, the app moves on to the next. There are varying levels of difficulty, encouraging dexterity, hand-eye coordination and spacial awareness.
Numbers adds a more straightforward, or recognisable, gameplay element to the learning. Again, the kids arrange physical tiles – in this case, dots and digits – to make numbers, pop the bubbles on screen and explore the app’s underwater world. It gives maths the kind of creativity and fun that I wish my own lessons had had.
Words is a spelling and vocabulary game, essentially hangman with a picture clue and without any jeopardy. It is ideal for the early primary school years – you need some grasp of spelling after all . Another “enhanced” app/gadget for younger children getting to grips with their letters is the nicely designed Marbotic. There’s a nod towards traditionalism with the wooden letters, but it all interacts with the app to encourage greater attention span in those easily distracted small fry.
If you want to encourage an interest in the natural world, yet know all too well that a butterfly net and a kids gardening set just isn’t going to impress under the Christmas tree, then consider a microscope. The heavy, black, impossible-to-focus apparatus from biology lessons of yore has been updated, thank goodness. Learning Resources’ handheld microscope (£50) is a brilliantly designed, robust piece of kit. It’s as simple as it sounds: you plug it into a computer via USB and just hold it over the object, and the image appears. 54x magnification is more than enough to amaze kids with the details of their lunch/a bug/a leaf/their own fingers.
Of course, nothing is more appealing to children than the gadget that really isn’t designed for them, or has a screen you have given them strict instructions not to get their grubby little fingers all over. By far the most entranced my own kids have been with anything technology-related recently is watching the seeds in our Miracle Gro garden (from £69.95 to £269.95) emerge. These indoor garden devices allow you to grow your own herbs, tomatoes, salad leaves and more in a tiny, soil-free garden. The integrated lights mean it doesn’t matter how cold or damp or dark the corner you can find for it is, and it all happens so quickly you can almost see the plants growing. The screen gives tips on whether you need to add water or plant food, and where in the life cycle of the plant you are. Other than that, you need do very little – except watch, amazed at the speed of growth. Never mind boring old cress, for kids to be able to see basil go from microscopic seeds to pesto on their pasta in two weeks is pretty magical. This is one gadget that proves technology can foster growth both physical and developmental.
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