Teach Kids Coding (or Learn It Yourself) Using the Latest Toys

Growing up in the 80s, I’ve always been a fan of computers. I’d spend a lot of time watching my parents work on it and taught myself how to navigate DOS directories to find WordPerfect, games, and other programs.

My dad worked in military intelligence and had access to a ton of discarded computer parts. Like many organizations, the government only cared about destroying the data on hard drives – the CPU, memory, motherboard, video card, case, keyboard, monitor, mouse, etc. were up for grabs. As my dad explored the world of personal computing, I watched over his shoulder and experimented while they weren’t home.

My mom would always tell me I need to get out and participate in more activities like Little League and Boy Scouts. I spend too much time on computers and games – I’m wasting my life.

While I do appreciate the time I spent outside (I’ve never had anything against it), it’s my computer proficiency that got me jobs and helped my successes in life. Computers are everywhere, and understanding how to program and communicate with them is a valuable skill. Nobody ever once asked me to hit a ball or start a fire during a job interview, but they’ve certainly put me on computers.

Computers and video game consoles were seen as toys when I was a kid, and using them wasn’t as encouraged as it is today. There were no professional gaming leagues (we played Goldeneye, Tekken, etc. in warehouses and underground club tournies) and if you knew how to hack a computer, it was best to keep it to yourself. When I was growing up, computer skills were a taboo you kept to yourself. The best consequence you could hope for was being mocked.

The world is changing, and we now realize how vital it is to the survival of our country to instill STEM skills into kids at an early age. I got two new toys in this month that are aiming to do exactly that.

Sphero SPRK+ ($129.99 at Sphero.com)

Sphero Sprk

You may recognize the name Sphero from last year’s CES, where the company stole the show with its BB8 smart ball. It kept the momentum going with the force band, which allows you to control the ball with hand gestures. While BB8 may win the cute contest with its licensed design, it’s the Sprk+ programmable smart ball that really makes me smile.

I’m a hands-on learning kind of guy, and while I do occasionally enjoy debugging and coding, it’s not where my passion lies. Reading about it can get boring fast, and I prefer learning from hands-on experience. With this educational toy, you can get to coding quickly and easily without needing to worry about typos and other semantics that could otherwise make things more difficult.

Sphero Sprk Plus Smart Ball

SPRK+ has a UV-coated polycarbonate shell and can move up to 4.5 miles per hour within a 100-foot Bluetooth range of your mobile device. The inductive charger base uses a micro-USB interface to charge the battery for up to an hour of run-time. And if you’re crafty, you can add Sphero into another device to gain control over it. What makes it work is the Lightning Lab app.

With a simple drag-and-drop interface, you can easily set an order of operations to make SPRK+ roll at a designated speed for a specific amount of time, change directions, flash colors, and more. It’s really easy to get the hang of and doesn’t take any experience with programming languages to get started with simple programs (although you’ll find knowledge of syntax and operations does come in handy with more complicated ones).

Sphero Sprk Lightning Lab

The community is encouraged to share programs, so you’ll find plenty of codes to get you started down the right path. Everything from simple tasks like revving the engine to full throttle or speaking to more complicated ones like the Pokemon Go and color games shown above can be found. It’s a small community, but definitely growing and encouraging toward each other from what I saw in my feed.

As it’s an educational toy, you can login as an instructor and assign tasks to students. Sphero will even assign you some tasks to get started in the learning process. I found myself somewhat struggling with ideas of what to do besides torment my roommate and dog with a foul-mouthed terminator on a rampage. It has a ton of potential though and can take a pretty decent beating. It also comes with maze tape to extend the capabilities.

Sphero Sprk Plus Base

For a simple introduction into coding and robotics, you can’t beat Sphero SPRK+ and the Lightning Lab. I love how easy it is to explore the functions, operators, and possibilities of programming through this toy. BB8 may get more fame, but I prefer the transparent casing of SPRK+, which lets me see the circuitry inside.

However, I’m also a gamer and have a pile of products to work my way through, so after about five hours stretched over two days, I put SPRK+ down to check out another toy meant to teach kids coding.

Code Gamer ($149.99 at ThamesandKosmos.com)

Code Gamer

Thames and Kosmos was founded in 2001 by a science museum director and her son to create educational science materials. Code Gamer is an Arduino-based microcontroller attached to a DIY gamepad and a variety of sensors to enable a variety of programming experiments that give you insight into real-world, mixed-reality and IoT experiences.

The controller itself comes disassembled with instructions on how to put it together, which teaches kids what’s inside those fabled game controllers for consoles like PS4 and Xbox One. Four color-coded sensor bots add light, sound, motion, and touch sensors to the controller, and you can program it to do basically anything you want.

Code Gamer Controller

To get started and and familiarize yourself with coding, download the KosmosBits game for iOS or Android. It’s a simple game that teaches you the basics of coding and programming your controller. As the game progresses, more complex coding challenges are necessary to solve in order to progress. Once you’ve finished, you can even create your own levels.

If that’s not enough, you can also attach the controller to your computer’s USB port to delve even deeper into the customization options. While the coding section of Code Gamer more closely resembles the real thing than SPRK+’s app, the gamification aspect provides plenty of incentive to continue progressing through.

Code Gamer Kosmos and Thames

The only downside I had was when I was finished playing – There’s no controller case, so I’m stuck holding on to the box and disassembling many of the parts to keep them protected. It would have been nice to have some way to protect the circuitry during storage instead of stressing about breaking this expensive toy on accident.

Besides that, I found the experience to be quite informational and a great way to pick up coding skills. They didn’t have these types of toys around when I was a kid – most adults barely had computers. I wish they did though, and I’m glad companies like Sphero and Thames & Kosmos are around to make them today.

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Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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