In our kids’ science class, we do 35 weeks of different STEM themes, including Robots. As much as possible, most of our projects are done using only common everyday craft supplies, kitchen ingredients, and items from the recycle bin. But every now and then, we bring in some specialty STEM toys, that offer kids unique opportunities to explore the week’s theme. Our robot class is one of the themes that most benefits from this.
So, I’ve done some research, and gotten a few robot toys that I can give detailed feedback on, and I can share my notes on the other robots I’ve found.
This crab shaped Table Top Robot ($11) is fun… you turn it on, set it on a table, and it scuttles sideways till it hits the edge of the table, then turns, and scuttles till it reaches an edge again. It’s not really an interactive toy, but it is certainly captivating, and does a good job of illustrating our three factors that make a robot: sensors, processor, actuator. Our switch broke off in a fall, so we use a screwdriver or other sharp tool to turn on or off.
A year or so ago, my son went to a robot class at the library, which featured Bee-Bots programmable robots. I looked into buying them, but at the time, they cost $97 each. (Price has now come down to $79. You can also buy Activity Mats for them.) The Code and Go Mouse is a much cheaper option and they function much the same: You type in the code on the buttons, then press the green button to execute the program.
I really like this toy. This is one of those toys where I find it most effective to sit down and do a really clear simple demo of how it works, then have them repeat it. Do another demo that expands the concept. Have them repeat it. Then walk away and have them explore that for a while, then come back and correct misconceptions or add new ideas. So, I would first show how the mouse works, chanting out the steps and clearly demo-ing the button press… “Press the yellow button to let the mouse know you’re going to tell it what to do. Then, if you want the mouse to go forward, you program blue, if you want it to turn, you press orange or purple to tell it which way to turn, then green to tell it to go. So, ready: yellow-to-start, forward [press blue], forward [press blue], left [purple], forward [blue]. Now press green for go.” As it goes forth, I chant out forward-forward-left-forward. Then they do it. Then I teach them how to look at the maze, decide where the mouse needs to go to reach the cheese, and program that in. [There are puzzle cards you can follow that walk you through 20 different maze configurations that get progressively more difficult, building skills in sequence. When I check in, I see how they’re progressing through the cards.]
Most of the three to four year olds in the class were able to get the process of how to program it, and could get it through a few basic mazes with assistance. The five and ups were able to work through several puzzles independently. There’s a conceptual error they have to get past… If when they start on the maze, the mouse is pointing away from them toward the “top” of the maze, they think of the top as “forward” even after the mouse turns left or right. They have to learn how to re-orient their mind spatially to think “OK, after he turns left, then forward is on the left side of the board, so now if I want him to go up, he first has to turn right, then go forward.”
Cubelets These are called “robot blocks” but as cubes, they don’t resemble anything that a child would think of when they hear the word robot. That said, they are a pretty cool electronic toy. In a set of 6, you get a battery block, two sensors (light and distance), two active blocks (an LED light and wheels), and a passive block which does nothing other than help you build a bigger structure (I don’t love paying for a passive block). And there are plastic block adapters so you can build a Lego structure on to your cubelets. The blocks are magnetic, so you set them next to each other and they click together. You can build in various configurations. You can build a “dumb flashlight” – when the light sensor perceive light, it turns on the LED light. You can build something that rolls around when the sensor is triggered. That’s about all you can build. So, in some ways, I really like this. It’s an easy and engaging and safe way for young children (ages 3 and up) to play with assembling a circuit. If this cost $20 or $30, I would recommend it to everyone! But, it costs $150, which is crazy, and I can’t really recommend spending that much on something with such limited functionality.
Sphero SPRK+ STEAM Educational Robot ~$130. You download an app to your smart-phone or tablet to use as a remote control to operate this robot. At the basic level, there’s a “driving” game, where you can use the remote to drive the robot all around the room – you can start at a slow roll, then increase the speed as you build skill. It can really zip around the room!
This was my son’s Christmas present. It’s really pricey, so I wanted to love it and I wanted him to love it. But, as you’re getting started with it, it can be frustrating. It’s supposed to automatically turn on when you turn on the app – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The instructions on the app say you’re supposed to tap the Sphero to turn it on… no matter how hard you tap, this rarely works. When you start up the app, it asks you to calibrate it by turning it so the blue light on it faces your device. Easy enough. But then as a child plays with it, they accidentally bump that calibration feature on a regular basis, then it stops working right, and you have to re-calibrate it. These frustrations were enough that we basically got it at Christmas, played with it off an on for a few hours over a few days, then it sat on the shelf untouched till May.
I think it can do a lot more. I think I remember back when I ordered it, that there was programming you can do, and lots of other things, but frankly we’ve never done that…. My notes from Christmas say: “Visual Block-Based Programming Transform ideas into code by using visual blocks that represent our C-based language, Oval.” Could it be a cool toy if we could really explore it more and figure it out? Maybe, but I’m not motivated to do that. Just doing the basic stuff is too annoying for me to bother doing more.
OWI 14-in-1 Solar Robot. I was a little hesitant to order a solar powered robot, because we live in Seattle, and frankly, solar power is not really successful in this rainy, northern climate. But, it looked like I might be able to jury-rig in a battery pack if the solar didn’t work, so I decided to give it a try, since it was only $23.
OK, to be fair I only worked with this for 30 or 40 minutes the other night when I was rushing to get ready for class. But… in that time, I found that: when I tried to assemble the gear assembly, there’s a little peg that goes on the outside that I think is supposed to help hold it all together, but it falls off all the time and the gear assembly slips out of place. I got frustrated with that, so went on to try to assemble the “head” of the robot, where the solar panel clicks in, I seemed to be totally missing the side pieces for this assembly. I gave up and shoved it all back in the box.
I’ll copy my notes out of my spreadsheet from Christmas time here, but they might not be perfectly accurate, so check product descriptions to be sure!
Ozobot Evo Starter Pack, the STEM Robot. $89. Ages 6 and up. Program with remote, using Android or IOS, using ozoblockly – blocks of text you drag and drop. Can flash lights, make sound. You can draw colored lines with markers that it can follow. It can move around autonomously – has proximity sensors. USB charger. Some reviews great, some said it doesn’t follow lines, one said fragile.
Wonder Workshop Dash Robot. $129. Ages 5 – 9. App on Android, IOS or Kindle Fire. Program with Blockly and Wonder. Moves, dances, lights up, makes sounds, avoids obstacles, and reacts to voice. USB charger. Reviews generally positive. Say for littlest kids, it’s a fun remote control toy; for older kids simple to program it to do things like follow you around.
HEXBUG VEX Robotics Ant. $33. 150 snap together pieces; control with remote control; or it can scurry autonomously with bump sensors to guide it. Reviews say a 10 year old can build independently, a 7 year old build with assistance in a day with a lunch break. Once built, 5 – 10 year old could play with. Flip switches to run 64 different programs. Reviews say missing pieces, and don’t drop it because pieces will fly everywhere and you’ll have to rebuild
Makeblock DIY mBot Kit $95. age 8 and up can assemble and play independently. App for ios 7 or above or Android 2.3 or above. AA batteries or rechargeable lithium battery. 38 parts can be assembled in 10 minutes; can follow colored lines, obstacle avoidance, remote control, says compatible with lego but doesn’t look like you can do a lot. Inputs: light sensor, button, infrared receiver, ultrasonic sensor, line follower; outputs: buzzer, LED, infrared, two motor ports. Reviews positive, though one says the instructions are hard to follow if you’re not a techie person.
What’s Not Included in This Review
There are LOTS more robot toys out there. Things that might better match your image of a “toy robot” but which is basically just a doll with blinking lights and buzzers. In this review, I tried to include mostly things that were: programmable, and/or had sensors, and/or were also a building / assembling project.