Smart Toys Gift Guide 2016 - Hackable Devices for Kids

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As you may know, hackable devices for kids are a trend. Even Kickstarter says so.

Here at Move38, we’re developing just such a product, in this case a screenless tabletop game platform with digital components that you can make your own games on (in addition to playing the ones we and our friends make).

But we’re not selling it yet and I’m not writing about it today.

In the course of starting this company, we’ve done a lot of research on hackable tech toys. It occurred to us our research might be helpful to folks scrambling to find gifts for kids that might actually teach them something.

The Big Five

There are five products that stand out above the rest, in our opinion. When in doubt, pick one of these. They are Sphero, Little Bits, Cubetto, Ozobot, and what is perhaps the oldest toy in this category, Lego MindStorms.

Sphero

A remote controlled, programmable ball that you guide with your mobile device. It’s famous for being the technology behind the BB-8 droid in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The company behind it makes a range of products. They’re all fun to play with as toys, per se, but some have more learning value than others. The one most geared to hacking is the Sprk Plus which offers a refined system for teaching the rudiments of programming. See here for a detailed rundown on what it can do, and a video run down here:

Little Bits

Little Bits are like Legos but for electronics: simple, modular electronics that work like building blocks. The company sells them in kits, where each kit contains a few projects with instructions, like for building a musical instrument or a robot with creepy eyes that glow green when it hears a sound. The simplest kits can be built by 8-year olds. You can see all Little Bits kits here. You can see a more in depth review here and watch an adorable video review by a cute kid here:

Cubetto

The tagline for this product is “Teach your child to code before they can read” and they aren’t kidding. Cubetto is for kids three and up and by all accounts it really does work for kids that young.

It’s a system for controlling a simple, wooden, square shaped robot with wheels. There’s a wooden board with shallow holes in it a bunch of differently shaped blocks with pegs that fit into the holes. Each shape represents a command you can give to the robot. When a child puts a sequence of blocks onto the board, it makes the robot do a particular sequence of things. We’re big fans. Here’s a thorough video review:

Ozobot

Ozobot is like Cubetto, but for older kids (8 and up). They make several products but the Ozobot Bit is the best for hacking and learning to program. It uses a “block” programming language where you drag code modules into the program you’re building. It’s like a virtual version of Cubetto’s physical blocks. Here’s a nice video review of the Ozobot Bit:

Lego Mindstorms

Constructable, programmable robots made out of Legos. Mindstorms has been around since 1998 and everything about it is vast: the number of kits and projects, the size of the community, and the volume of third-party resources online. One downside is it’s easy to get lost in the giant Mindstorms ecosystem. Another is that their marketing materials are pretty non-inclusive: it’s very white and very boy-centric. Note other “constructable robotics” kits have come out in the time since, but we decided not to include them here because we think Mindstorms is still the way to go. Below is a thorough review of the latest generation (it’s a little critical, but bear in mind reviewers generally hold Mindstorms to a higher standard than they do for other products):

The Rest

These are products that we’re not quite as confident about for one reason or another (we explain our reasons for each below).

Chibitronics

These are tech construction kits in the vein of Little Bits, except you build circuits with stickers that have embedded electronic elements in them. The key downside is once you stick the circuits together, they’re hard to take apart again, so the system isn’t infinitely reusable. (Full disclosure: Chibitronics featured our own Jonathan Bobrow on their site).

Teknikio

Another tech building product like Little Bits, except the main building material is paper, which gives the system a notably friendly vibe (it’s billed as origami with circuitry). We really like this system. It’s inexpensive and the paper invites children to be creative. We’re on the fence about whether to add it to the Big Five above. The downside is that there’s only so much you can do with it: many of the projects entail building an animal or some other structure and illuminating it with LEDs.

Makey Makey

An invention kit that allows you to turn everyday object into digital interfaces. For example, you can turn a bunch of bananas into a musical instrument. It’s very well done, but we don’t include it in the top echelon because its functionality is a little limited.

Cubelets

These are like Little Bits above but more constrained in what you can do with them, too constrained in our opinion. Every unit is a cube, and different cubes have different functions. They can be used by kids as young as 4, as they’re a little simpler than Little Bits.

Technology Will Save Us

This is a series of kits for building various tech projects, like Little Bits above, except the different kits aren’t quite as easy to combine and repurpose for your own invented projects (which is why we prefer Little Bits over this).

Root

Root is like Ozobot above: a programmable robot (it looks like a little Roomba), and here again, it uses block programming to make the programming easy for kids. This one isn’t available yet, having just Kickstarted, but you can preorder here.

Kano

This is a kit from which kids can build a simple computer and then learn to program with it. Our main issue with it is that you’re not so much building a computer as assembling it (which is necessary to make it simple enough for a 6 year old). Like putting a table from IKEA together rather than building a table yourself. It’s not clear how much learning value there is in doing this.

AirBlock

This is a low-cost, modular, programmable drone. It’s hard to know how good it is, because it’s not out yet. It was Kickstarted earlier this year and backers won’t receive their rewards until February 2017. It uses block programming like Ozobot above, so it will presumably be a good choice for teaching young kids the rudiments of programming.

That’s it for now! We’ll update this page regularly as new products come out and old ones get refined.

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