Robots are a great intro to programming for kids of any age. Especially in the run-up to holidays, parents of students often ask me to recommend educational robots. It's a great time to buy as all companies will be doing Christmas gift-inspired discounts. Shop around as you could find your local Barnes & Noble offers as good if not better a deal than the go-to online retailers.
Here are robots I’ve used in my RafiaKids STEM maker and coding classes. I’d recommend them all for different reasons, not least because they encourage kids to look up from their screens. Robots are a brilliant visual representation of code. Watching them zoom about is entertainment in itself - take the controls and you’re one tap closer to being a programmer.
Most off-the-shelf robots sold as educational toys come with a quickstart remote control option, usually an app with a joystick type control that you can use on your phone or tablet. For children who can read, my advice is to try and get off these as quickly as possible and install the coding app because they can do so much more with it. Playing with code is easy with these robots because it’s all block coding - fat colorful blocks that you can move around with your finger and click into position on a smartphone screen. Kids who have done Scratch will have no trouble getting started. The Tickle app is doing a great job at this because it pulls in some of the best educational robot apps in one place. And if you are curious, you can tap further and see the ‘real’ code hard at work underneath.
Dash and Dot
These robots just work. There is no trouble-shooting needed for setting up so they are great with any age and learning ability. I used them in a class of young adults with autism and found them a brilliant way to connect. With just enough character in the rounded blue design to make them personable, these robots prove themselves time and again a best first robot for young children.
San Francisco Bay Area startup Wonder Workshop has developed a family of apps for Dash and Dot and there’s already a strong community of clubs sharing ideas through competitions. Not the cheapest, but because of their size, an easy robot to share in a school club or when your children’s friends come to play.
If you’ve seen one robot in the stores, it’s probably this one, with its double-ball headline-catching relation, BB-8. Sphero has basically reinvented the ball, and this is definitely the coolest programmable robot here because, well, it doesn’t look anything like a picture-book robot. With no fiddly parts to break, it’s the most robust and offers the quickest path to programming.
There are some accessories to be bought (the chariot looks good), but you basically bring your own creativity to this bot. At maker faires, I’ve seen kids remote-control painting with Sphero, making it follow an obstacle course, and promotional videos show it swimming underwater. In my class, the students programmed a simulated zombie attack which was surprisingly delightful to watch.
mBots were some of the first programmable robots I tried with middle schoolers. They were challenging enough to fill one-hour classes, and 3-4 classes was enough to get kids understanding the basic settings, functions and programs. I also based some robot summer camps around them.
‘I liked the mBots - you didn't have to do any wiring, it was just programming,’ said Sam, 10, who built and programmed an mBot in a mixed robot programming class.
Out the box, they take about an hour to build. For the original version we got from Kickstarter in 2013, code was only uploaded via usb and it took a while to find and download the right software for Mac. The mBot team in Shenzhen, China, has grown hugely since those early days, the product has improved with apps, and mBots are now a popular choice in schools in Europe, China and the US.
‘mBots are a great intermediary or second robot experience for kids,’ says Sara Bolduc, Innovation Manager of the CEC Makerspace in Hamilton, California. ‘The online interface of the mBlock program itself mimics Scratch and is great for teaching code skills at the same time as robotics.’
Author, STEM enthusiast and CEO of IoT Disruptions Sudha Jamthe agrees that mBot's variation of Scratch, called mBlock, is key to its success for teaching programing. 'It it easy for kids to program visually,' she says. 'mBot comes with many sensors which make it fun for the kids and keeps them wanting to try more things. You can program musical notes or LED lights, or make the robot follow a line. If the students get the easy programming concepts, you can use mBot to teach about variables and functions by creating an obstacle race.'
One of the latest additions to mBot is the Ranger Robot, a larger tougher-looking rover robot that I can see kids really wanting in their toy collection. Like the mBot, it comes in parts with a screwdriver and instructions. In the time it took me to do a google hangout, a middle school student built the Ranger and paired it up with the smartphone app. It was the first time he’d built a robot and he proudly demo’d it in the makerspace.
The following day, Ranger was zooming around under the control of Emily, 14.
‘It looks a bit like Wall-E… And the programming is just like Scratch,’ she said, as she navigated Ranger round chair and table legs and knocked a Sphero out the way.
These tiny robots fit into the palm of your hand. Place them on a line drawn in thick black Sharpie and they zoom along nicely. You can program them to change speed or direction and flash different colored lights by breaking your black line and adding in some primary colored dots. You can also upload code when placed on a tablet or smartphone screen that has ozobot’s apps installed.
‘They’re a fun, easy, quick plug-and-play for younger aged kids,’ says Sara Bolduc.
Ozobots are great for table-top entertainment although can be temperamental when it comes to uploading code from the apps. If you run into problems, make sure you have turned up the brightness settings on your screen, recalibrate the bot by placing it on the black circle provided in the box or in the apps, and check the wheels are free of fluff.
Whichever robot you choose to buy, the important thing to remember with kids is that for anything to become something they return to, it needs to be fun. 'There's something about being able to touch and hold something like a toy that engages kids,' says Sudha Jamthe who has taught STEM to middle schoolers. 'I enjoy seeing the amazement in kids. They think creatively about what else they can do and keep learning more programming, all while having fun.'