The complete guide to buying a robot for your kids

Parents often buy cool robot toys for their children with the hopes that it will spark an interest in science and engineering. I know because I was one of them. But often parents are left disappointed as these bots are nothing more than remote control droids. Yet, I still believe robots carry a high potential for learning through play.

With the help of four tester families, boys and girls ranging from five to 11 years of age, tested as many robots as possible in the past year in order to explore the learning potential and how much adult support might be needed. Some robots were played with for 10 hours and some for over 500 hours as the robots varied in complexity and function. We specifically looked for toys that had the power to really engage kids, would challenge them, but at the same time leave them feeling accomplished and excited for the more ways to learn.

The good news is 2014 truly is the Year of the Robot: So many toys that allow children to program robots easily have entered the market this year. In their own ways, many of them demonstrate the benefits of coding to youngsters through hands on toys that will immediately execute the programs the kids have created. Until now, much of learning how to code has been screen-based. There are many good robot toys out there, especially ones with ability to use coding but not every robot is right for everyone.

Here’s an overview of 13 of the best robots that we tested:

Name Age Price Notes
KIBO 4 $229- $399 Don’t be fooled by the simplistic design. This set is made to look approachable so youngsters will feel free to experiment.
Dot and Dash 5 $199- $349 Attachments for LEGO bricks, along with the easy Blockly-based programming app and its adorable design to boot? You had me at LEGO.
Ozobot 8 49.99 -99.99 It’s a codable robot that fits in your pocket. Accuracy matters when you draw codes with markers so be sure to try coding on a tablet first.
Sphero 2.0 8+ $129 This ball does it all. It runs stunts, is controlled by apps, or can be the joystick itself in the game. Kids can learn coding too but they will really love personalizing with accessories.
LEGO Mindstorms EV3 10+ $349 The EV3 is indeed great but it is the international online community of learners sharing their ideas that make EV3 truly amazing. Worth every penny.
VEX IQ Robotics Starter Set 8+ $299 Sturdy construction is offered with easy to use open source programming software. Suggested age is 8 but 9 or 10 might be better if your child has fine motor challenges.
ANKI Drive 8+ $149 Assured to wow a crowd, Anki can be used in minutes out of the box but the robots are so smart, sometimes I think they are doing all the work for you.
MiP 8+ $99 Though it needs more programmable options, MiP’s quirky personality has won our hearts. Note to MiP: Make more apps!
Ollie 8+ $99.99-$149.99 Ollie is the kind of bot you want to give to a shy kid so he can meet his inner rock star. Still we need more apps to break out the courage.
Remote Control Machines DLX 8+ $129.95 This is a toy that transforms itself into 20 other toys. It’s an excellent way to teach basic mechanical engineering but there is no programming option.
JumperBot 8+ $49.95 This is the ideal bot for kids who tend to break things apart to learn. No batteries necessary in this simple set.
Brushbot Kit 6+ $19.95 The perfect activity for a science-themed party. Try cutting bristles in varying ways to influence movement and direction.
MOSS Zombonitron 1600 8+ $149.95 Zombonitron has an awesome design with its 360 degree rotational joints but I just wish the MOSS set with the programming block wasn’t $330 more.

Here’s an in-depth look at our favorites:

1. Forget everything you think you know about robots

Sphero 2.0 (Ages 8+; $129); Ollie (Ages 8+: $99)

Toddler tries to drive the Sphero with the iPad mini photo by Jenn Choi
A toddler tries to drive the Sphero with the iPad mini. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

How is this a robot? Where are the eyes, the legs? All of these are good questions and yet, this spherical wonder embodies many of the traits that I value in a modern robot toy. The first is that it is rather indestructible. I’ve stepped on it and ran it into the wall many times. Additionally, the Sphero 2.0 can not only get wet but it can actually swim! Best of all, this bot is rather easy to just pick up and play with—all you need is a phone or tablet to drive it. To drive it well, your child must practice but there is a payoff once she is able. A variety of apps allow users to drive Sphero while videotaping it simultaneously, test hand-eye reflexes, or even play golf with Sphero. To add to the excitement, Sphero released additional accessories and stunt products including the chariot, which basically turns Sphero into a transport vehicle with a cellphone slot (think drive-cam) and a special rooftop that can fit LEGO-like bricks.

The $20 Chariot for Sphero makes it compatible to  this tester's huge LEGO collection.  A great investment.  photo by Jenn Choi
The $20 Chariot for Sphero makes it compatible to this tester’s huge LEGO collection. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

Since gifting the first-gen Sphero to my son two years ago, I have watched the company grow into an entity that continues to put learning first. This year, Orbotix, the makers of Sphero created SPRK, a program that teaches programming with Sphero and its cousin, the Ollie, a cylindrical robot named after a skateboard stunt. Our official tester, an 11-year-old girl in the sixth grade, had a blast learning how to program her powerful Ollie, which can run as fast as 14mph, with her dad.

7 year old testing to see if you can use  Ollie to give yourself a foot massage photo by Jenn Choi 2
Seven-year-old testing to see if you can use Ollie to give yourself a foot massage. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

 

So impressed with Ollie, her father bought two Spheros for her cousins so that they could swim with their new robots since they have a pool. My children tested Sphero for months, love it as well as the new accessories but it is Ollie who is on my eldest’s (a 10-year-old) wish list since it was released this fall. Thus, Santa will leave Darkside Ollie under the tree this year. I am hoping the investment will end up paying for itself as we’ve discovered Ollie’s powerful motor gives excellent back massages, even better than Sphero does.

2. Robots teach best if they don’t intimidate

KIBO (Ages 4-7; $229 – $399); Ozobot (Ages 8+; $49.99)

Connecting a Sequence of Programming Blocks to by Scanned by KIBO photo by Jenn Choi 2
Connecting a sequence of programming blocks to be scanned by KIBO. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

For some, the idea of preschoolers learning to code may seem preposterous but I think it makes perfect sense. Coding is very much like learning a new language and without a doubt, early exposure can make a big difference. However, what I like most about coding is how it promotes breaking things down to problem solving. For any child, learning to code is mostly a two-dimensional process but most educators will tell you that three-dimensional play is better for the very young. Enter KIBO, a robot that scans bar codes from color-coded wooden blocks with images that are connected easily by pegs. Each block has a directive i.e. shake, turn right, sing. Together, the directives make one programming sequence to be scanned. Unlike most robots, KIBO is different because it’s rather simple-looking.

Scanning a programming sequence one block at a time with KIBO photo by Jenn Choi
Scanning a programming sequence one block at a time with KIBO. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

I later learned that KIBO was purposely designed this way based on research from Tufts University’s Dev Tech Research Group. The creators felt that plain-looking robots could reduce the kind of apprehension that hinder young children, like my seven-year-old, from wanting to explore. I was made a believer when on the first day of playing with KIBO: I saw this same child pick up this unusual looking robot and start to scan coding blocks to make a new program as if he had been doing it all year long.

To be sure, looking approachable is an excellent attribute for inviting curiosity. Similarly, the very adorable Ozobot, which is smaller than a ping pong ball, still manages to teach many lessons in basic programming. Ozobot follows black lines and will follow your orders (spin, zigzag, go fast) if you draw different color code sequences in between the black lines. No tablets are necessary, but putting your Ozobot on a tablet will broaden its possibilities dramatically. My favorite app is Ozodraw where children are able create a path for Ozobot just by simply dragging and dropping coding blocks onto his path on the screen. There are also puzzles where users must figure out which code would help Ozobot complete its path.

Ozobot can be played with on screen or on paper photo by Jenn Choi
Ozobot can be played with on screen or on paper. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

3. The quintessential robot

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 ($349, Ages 10+), VEX IQ Robotics Construction Kit ($299, Ages 8+)

Checking out the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 at World Maker Faire 2014 photo by Jenn Choi
Checking out the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 at World Maker Faire 2014. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

The EV3 really embodies the concept of what most people think a robot should be—a machine that can be programmed to perform various tasks. Its modular design means the robot structure can be changed and the programmable “brain” is there so that it can do a job without being given a direction at every single step. The difference is simple: a typical programmed task might have an if/then clause involved. “If my right sensor bumps into something, I will turn left.” A remote control droid would need a person to push a button once he sees that his robot bumped his right side. LEGO EV3 is a terrific transition from pretend play to productivity but it isn’t for everyone. Some parents may think that robotics is a natural next step after building the more complex LEGO sets but, a child must be interested by the potential to build and to code in order for this toy to be successful. Parental help, however, is necessary in two big ways: Wrangling stubborn computers when downloading software or programs and understanding complex directions. (Note that LEGO directions are awesome. When reading pdf instructions on a screen, the pegs will literally move into their respective places!). Additionally, when facing building challenges, children will need a coach-like mentor, someone who can provide moral support and ask the right questions so that the child can figure out a solution.

Two testers ages 8 and 10 build and code VEX IQ Robotics Construction Kit together 2 photo by Jiming Liang
Two testers, 8 and 10, build and code VEX IQ Robotics Construction Kit. (Photo by Jiming Liang)

Much of this also applies to another system, the VEX IQ Robotics Construction Kit that uses the free open source Modkit for VEX for programming. This kit is new to consumers but the education VEX IQ sets have been available in the education market for years. Both VEX IQ and LEGO EV3 have somewhat different packages from their education set counterparts, which contain trays for parts, rechargeable batteries—basically they are more designed for classroom use. Our testers tested the LEGO Education EV3 set as well and were very happy with it because it comes with rechargeable battery and organizing crates as well as a full curriculum dedicated to teaching programming via EV3.

4. Design and personality enhances potential

Dot and Dash ($259, Ages 5-12, preorders only at Amazon, orders start to ship on Dec. 16), MiP ($99, Ages 8+)

Figuring out how to get Dash to play a song was fun for this 7 year old photo by Jenn Choi
Figuring out how to get Dash to play a song. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

If there were such a contest, Dot and Dash would tie for the Cutest Robot of the Year Award. These do not have a humanoid shape and yet these bots from Wonder Workshop’s seem to be the most life-like of any of the robots we’ve tested. Despite the cuteness and simulated eye blinks, there are brains beneath the beauty here. Blockly is a program that can be downloaded onto kids’ iPads so that they can easily create programs for Dot and Dash. Both have the potential to be fun playmates as well as useful desk pets. My 10-year-old son who enjoys building more than coding was highly motivated to program Dot to be a timer because it’s simply adorable.

Homemade code to transform Dot or Dash into a personal reading timer. First your bot will say “okay” and turn red, and then in 10 minutes, turn yellow, then in another 10 minutes, he will turn green, say “Weee” and “Buh Bye” and so your child will know time is up, he can go play.

This factor can be a game changer for some kids. Sometimes Dot says “OK” with a sigh or even snores if he’s been left alone. The best part is that you can also program it to do these things and more. Make Dot become a reading timer by starting out red, then yellow, then turning green after 20 minutes as required by many homework reading logs.

This 6 year old girl was laughing as she moved Dash around while the older boy was adding accessories to it. photo by Jenn Choi
This 6-year-old girl was laughing as she moved Dash around while the older boy was adding accessories to it. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

Personality and cuteness is another plus for WowWee’s MiP that can balance itself and more all while rolling on two wheels. Its nonsensical mumblings belong to no language and yet is easily understood by kids. Kid testers have said MiP would be good to help combat loneliness. Sure enough, it is a worthy companion in the morning as we wait for the school bus to arrive.

5. Coding is important but so is the machine

Remote Control Machines DLX ($129.95; Ages 8+)

Building a Scissor Lift with Remote Control Machines DLX photo by Jenn Choi
Building a scissor lift with Remote Control Machines DLX. (Photo by Jenn Choi)

Believe it or not, there is a lack of modular toys that offer remote control capabilities. LEGO Education WeDo with software is a great example and is especially terrific because it can be programmed with free programming language Scratch. However, if you are looking for something that doesn’t really involve programming or require parents, consider the Remote Control Machines DLX set from Thames and Kosmos, an expert in high quality science toys. Their large, full-color instructional manuals support self-directed learning, allow kids to choose from 20 different builds, and read how these machines apply to the real world.

Remote Control Machines DLX should really be called Remote Control Machines 2.0 because it’s not a kit with more pieces, rather, everything from pieces to instruction manual is new and improved from the original Remote Control Machines set. Additionally, the builds in DLX are all different from the original Remote Control Machines set. The DLX is compatible with the pieces in other Thames and Kosmos sets that explore other facets in engineering such as gyroscopes, spring action, hydraulics and pneumatics, to name a few. While programming isn’t offered here, it’s good for kids to learn about the mechanisms they would actually need to program in real life. Other kits that allow children to explore how sensors are used in robots are MOSS Zombonitron 1600 and the littleBits Premium Kit. Additionally fun low-cost DIY sets like the MAKE: Spinbot Kit and Brushbots from the Maker Shed are snappy tools for learning about motors as well as entertaining.

6. Ensure successful first days and productive play after the holidays

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made when gifting robots to kids is that I expect them to take to it like I gave them a bucket of blocks. Especially for the new ones like Ozobot and Dot and Dash, these toys are so novel that just because they don’t get it right away, doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

What is most important is that when they unwrap the gift, the toy can be used immediately. This may require you to open the box, place batteries in advance and download programs or apps so that your child can just take off! Ensure a safe, closed-off space to play so that no baby cousins will run off with a piece. Remember they are children and delayed gratification skills are non-existent by the holidays. Later, after the fanfare, if you find that their play has reached a plateau, try being a coach and gracefully support your child to find a solution independently. Learning is highly effective when achieved through play and if it’s not fun then it’s not play.

Note: Every product has been personally tested by Toys Are Tools’ testers. Products were submitted to facilitate a review. Some were also purchased by the writer. Reviews are never promised.

Jenn’s blog is Toys are Tools. Follow Jenn on Twitter @toysaretools. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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