Some fathers take their kids to the park and throw a football around with them. Others bring their progeny on fishing trips. I’m a different breed: My two children and I spend our free time making cool tech projects. Some days, we’ll put together a robot that’s powered by a Raspberry Pi or Arduino board. Other times, we’ll try programming an LED matrix to light up in just the right, colorful pattern. Still others, we’ll prototype interesting circuits on a breadboard, just to see how things work.
As we veer toward the heart of the Black Friday shopping season with holiday gift-giving just around the corner, there’s no better time for tech-obsessed parents like me to find cool gifts for their kids. While other parents will be looking for deals on gaming laptops, PS5s or Fire tablets, I’ll be shopping for maker and electronics projects we can do as a family.
If you’re like me and can’t resist teaching your kids about resistors or helping them learn to program, here are some shopping tips and recommended products.
- Your skill level: Are you going to be able to help your kids complete the project if they need help? If it involves soldering do you have a soldering iron (preferably one of the best soldering irons)? If it involves programming in Python, are you comfortable working with code?
- Your child’s skill level: Don’t look at how old your child is, but what they can do? My son, who is 11 now, and I were doing Raspberry Pi projects when he was 7. As soon as he could read, he could start understanding text-based code and Linux commands. But if your child can’t read well yet, go for a learning experience that’s based primarily on visual blocks.
- Physical computing beats software alone: There’s a lot of programming software out there, but kids get the most out of projects that allow them to build something or see something light up. Go for kits that either allow them to build and program a robot or ones that feature lights, sensors and motors.
- Is there a path to grownup skills? Some kids’ STEM kits teach children programming concepts, but not in a programming language that anyone actually uses. Look for kits that provide opportunities to code in Python, Arduino language or, if your child can’t read well yet, a common block-based language such as Scratch or Scratch Jr.
- What boards are needed? Many robot kits require you to buy your own Raspberry Pi or Arduino board to use them. Keep in mind that Raspberry Pis can still be hard to find in stock so, if the kit doesn’t come with a board, make sure you can get one and include its price in your budget.
These are the types of STEM gifts I’d get for my kids, an 11 year old with a lot of programming experience and a 4 year old who is just getting started and can’t read or type yet.
Programmable Robots for Kids
Programmable Robots for Kids
There are a lot of great robot kits (or prebuilt robots) you can program. Most travel around via wheels and can be programmed either via an app or on a computer. Be careful to buy one that's actually programmable and not a toy that you move only via remote control. These are some of my favorite programmable robots for kids.
Makeblock mBot: now $63 at Amazon (was $79)
My son and I really enjoyed building and programming the mBot, which is powered by mBot's own controller board that itself is based on Arduino. There's a powerful app with block-based coding, an ultrasonic sensor and a stylish but sturdy metal body.
If you want to do more powerful coding, you can also program it in Arduino language, using the Arduino IDE.
There are also a ton of expansion options as mBot sells accessory kits that add more motors and sensors to the mix. There's a pink and a blue version and the company also makes a more expensive kit that's a tank.
Wonder Workshop Dash: now $166 at Amazon (was $169)
Another Piltch family favorite, the Dash is more appealing to younger kids, who are in the 6 to 9 range. It comes pre-assembled, looks cute and has a personality as it rolls around talking to you if you don't program it to do otherwise.
You program it through an app with a very simple block-based coding language so it's best for kids who are near the beginning of their programming journey. You can also buy add-ons such as a xylophone that it plays.
Learning Resources Botley 2.0: $59 at Amazon
A great choice for young kids like my daughter who can't read yet, the Botley doesn't require a tablet or PC to program. Instead, kids give it instructions using either a pad or a series of cards it can run over. Everything is written in symbols so pre-literate kids can enjoy it.
Elegoo Uno R3 Smart Car: $54 at Amazon
My son and I built this a few years ago and had a lot of fun doing it. The kit comes with an Arduino Uno R3 board and some sample Arduino language code and lessons for you to program it. It also an ultrasonic sensor, line tracking and a camera.
Overall, this is a great value but it definitely made for older kids or parents who are tech-savvy and want to do the lion's share of the work.
UBTech Jimu MeeBot 2.0: now $79 at Amazon (was $79)
UBTech's Jimu line of robots snap together like Lego bricks and feature a variety of lights and sensors. You program them via a tablet app that has a block-based language. These are pretty fun to build and my son and I have tried a number of them. The MeeBot is affordable and dances.
STEM Coding Kits for Kids
STEM Coding Kits for Kids
Instead of getting a single robot to put together or program, what about a complete kit that gets you started with one of the major microcontrollers or single-board computers. Some of these even come with a variety of lights, sensors, resistors and circuits that you can use to learn.
Micro:bit V2 Starter Kit: $23 at Amazon
The Micro:bit V2 is a microcontroller board that's made for kids and can be programmed with Microsoft's Makeblock code on a tablet or computer. It has a built-in microphone, wireless connectivity and lights and buttons. There are also lots of accessories you can get for it.
Pico Bricks: $69 at Amazon
This kit comes with a Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller
and a mounting board which has a slew of sensors, lights and other gadgets you can program it to use via Micro Python. We reviewed the Pico Bricks last spring and were impressed with the plethora of options and learning opportunities.
Freenove Super Starter Kit for Raspberry Pi Pico: $38 at Amazon
The Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller is one of the most popular and versatile. This kit comes with a Pico with pre-soldered pins and a slew of wires, dials, sensors, resistors, lights and buttons you can use it with. You can program in Micro Python or C.
Vilros Raspberry Pi 4 (4GB) Starter Kit: $104 at Amazon
The Raspberry Pi is the ultimate single-board computer and Vilros makes it easy to learn the Pi by including a Raspberry Pi with 4GB of RAM with a case, a fan, a power supply and even a microSD card with the OS on it.
My son and I are huge Pi fans and use the board for everything from building a web server to learning Linux to building robots and emulating old game systems.
In addition to wheeled robots, getting a bot that can pick things up is really cool.
My kids and I have a lot of fun 3D printing toys and other models. But if you have younger kids, you need to be careful that they don't touch the hot parts or interfere with the print. See our list of the best 3D printers for a more comprehensive set of choices.
AOSeed X-Make 3D Printer for Kids: now $319 at Amazon (was $399)
Our favorite 3D printer for kids, the X-Make is fully enclosed to keep kids and pets from touching it. It comes with an easy-to-use app that has a slew of built-in toy designs kids can choose from. It can also work with standard slicers like Cura.
Click the coupon button to get it at this price.
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