If there's one thing that both the Trump and Obama White Houses agree upon, it's the importance of computer science education for children in America. Because of how digitally entrenched the world is getting, coding skills (at least at a basic level) are becoming nearly as essential as reading, writing, and math.
I've taught computer programming at the college level for decades. When I ask my students why they're in my course, the number one reason (pretty much the only reason) is jobs. My adult college students generally want to get coding jobs. But since technology touches us at so many levels, having a good understanding of computer and coding basics can benefit everyone.
In this gift guide, I focused on gifts for recipients ranging from three years old up to adults. Some of the kits provide an early understanding of programming concepts. Others allow the recipient to build robots or compelling electronic projects.
I tried to stay away from gifts that teach building apps, because many app-building environments require certain computers. Instead, I picked gifts that, if used to their fullest, will empower the recipient with skills to code on almost any platform. If nothing else, your recipient will know how to learn to code on a new platform, even if that's not the skill set delivered in the gift.
Some gifts are quite expensive. Others are less so. At the very end of this article are links to some free resources, so even if you don't want to spend anything, you can learn and share some coding basics.
And with that, let's dive into the gifts.
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Lego Mindstorms EV3
Let's start off with the gift I'd most like to get. I already own the Mindstorms NXT kit. I tried to build a little robotic car for my puppy, but he won't have anything to do with plastic. Even so, it was fun programming routes and having the robot respond to sensors.
Mindstorms EV3 is the third generation of Mindstorms. All Mindstorms kits are capable of being programmed, and integrate with Lego Technics parts. EV3 adds the native ability to be controlled by smart devices and apps. Advanced users can install ev3dev, which is a Debian Linux distro designed for Mindstorms.
Like many of the robotics-based coding products we're showcasing here in this gallery, at $349.99 the EV3 isn't cheap. But it's pretty much guaranteed to provide both a ton of fun and opportunities for both absolute beginners and advanced coders to learn something new.
littleBits Droid Inventor Kit
Nothing could be more fun than building your own little R2D2 bot. This kit allows your favorite gift recipient to not only construct a smart little Star Wars robot, but also allows for some basic block-level programming.
The Droid Inventor Kit, available for $99.95, includes a littleBits Control Hub, a server, proximity sensor, DC motor, and power.
If you're not familiar with littleBits, the company makes a large collection of snap-together electronic components, so creators can build powerful gadgets without needing to solder. This allows younger children to learn about how components integrate without having to worry about soldering safety.
Lego BOOST Creative Toolbox
If you want some Lego robotics fun, but you don't want to put out $350 for a Mindstorms kit, you might consider gifting the $159.99 Boost Creative Toolbox. It's appropriate for kids as young as seven and combines the classic Lego building experience with building and programming moving toys.
Out of the box, your gift recipient can build a 10-inch tall robot, a rover, a musical instrument with sound bending effects, an interactive pet cat and an AutoBuilder, a robot that builds miniature Lego models.
Programming is done with a simple icon-based programming environment that allows for drag-and-drop development. It works on iPads, some Android devices (check this list) and Windows 10. Unfortunately, this product doesn't support Mac.
Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar
When Mattel starts producing Fisher-Price brand coding toys for three-year-olds, you know coding has definitely gone mainstream. Designed for kids between three and six, the $49.99 Code-a-Pillar teaches kids how to think about sequences of actions.
There's no on-screen programming like most of the other toys. Instead, by combining the segments of the caterpillar in different sequences, the toy will move in different ways. This is a great way to not only introduce kids to the basic concepts of coding, but help them understand how cause and effect works in a fun and engaging way.
We've given strong reviews to the Sphero SPRK and Sphero SPRK+ before. In fact, those reviews were what landed this round little BB-8-like robot on our list. Sphero is the company that makes the very popular BB-8 robot, which we've also spotlighted. Think of the $129.99 SPRK+ as a transparent BB-8, with special attention put into programming tools.
MakeCode for Minecraft (plus VR)
As a game, Minecraft is amazing fun. But as an educational framework, it's simply amazing. While there's learning potential in every version of Minecraft, the Windows 10 free trial is a good place to start. If you want to make up your offering, you can give the $29.99 Starter Collection or the $49.99 Master Collection.
The real value, though, is in MakeCode for Minecraft on Windows 10. This provides a visual programming environment right in the same environment as Minecraft itself. Users will learn to program in ScratchBlocks (which is a little like Blockly and a little like Scratch). If you want your gift recipient to have a blast while learning to program, this is the way to go.
Now, if you're super-generous and you know your recipient loves Minecraft, you can transport your giftee right into the Minecraft virtual world. Windows Mixed Reality immersive headsets range in price from $350 to $449 and allow players to see the entire game world all around. They're a bit overkill, but for those who love gaming, they're also very compelling and exciting.
Adafruit MetroX Classic Kit
If you want to give your gift recipient real-world coding experience while also helping them understand electronics and microcontrollers, an Arduino starter kit is a great place to begin.
We chose the Adafruit MetroX Classic Kit for two reasons: it comes with a powerful Arduino-compatible microcontroller along with great accessories, and it's offered by Adafruit, a company known for its learning resources and great line of offerings for makers.
For $84.95, this kit includes instructions for more than 20 projects, along with the Adafruit Metro controller, breadboard, servo, tiny motor, mini remote control, LCD, force-sensitive resistor, and lots of lights, switches, and other goodies. This gift is appropriate for both older children and adults.
Kano Computer Kit
The $149.99 Kano Computer Kit is a great way to open the world of Raspberry Pi coding to your gift recipient. The kit contains a full Raspberry Pi 3, a very vivid orange keyboard, and everything needed to plug it into a monitor. If you want to skip the monitor and provide a touch screen as well, gift the Kano Computer Kit Touch for $279.
Both come with tons of learning resources including 100 playful challenges. If your recipient loves Minecraft, that's also an option for programming and tweaking with this product.
Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set
Meet Colby, the programmable mouse. Colby isn't a mouse used for computer input. Instead, your gift recipient will program Colby to work its way through a maze in search of cheese. Mmm... Cheese…
The Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set is another product that teaches coding concepts, rather than a specific programming language. That's why it's appropriate for little ones as young as four. There are activity guides to prompt the user in creating grid patterns and challenges to test skills.
For $59.99, it's a great way to introduce kids to programming concepts without them even knowing they're learning.
Like the Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set, Robot Turtles teaches programming fundamentals. However, instead of using plastic grid pieces and a battery-powered mouse, Robot Turtles is entirely analog. It's a board game with cards.
Under $20 on Amazon right now, it's also an inexpensive gift to give kids who you'd like to learn more about sequences and instruction algorithms. In the product's original Kickstarter video, former Googler and serial entrepreneur Dan Shapiro, the creator of Robot Turtles, points out what may well be its biggest benefit: no apps, no screens, no electronics.
That's right. With Robot Turtles you can teach kids the basics of programming while you keep their heads out of their screens. Take this outside or even to the park. Get some air and learn programming basics at the same time.
Microduino mCookie 102 Basic Kit
Microduino has an interesting idea. They packaged an Arduino style microcontroller, along with sensors, servos, buzzers, LEDs, and more into Lego-like modules (complete with the little round studs found on Lego bricks).
We like their $89 mCookie 102 Basic Kit because it's got a ton of playability value, includes both visual programming instruction as well as classic Arduino IDE programming, and has a reasonably accessible price point.
The company does offer bigger kits, including their $209 mCookie 202 Advanced Kit, their $359 mCookie 302 Expert Kit, and their intriguing $129 Itty Bitty City kit, which lets users build little buildings and roads, and program them to run automatically.
Jewelbots are "the friendship bracelets you can code." These are wearable Bluetooth devices that gift recipients can customize and code with the Arduino IDE. They light up and deliver quiet buzzes, so private messages can be sent between users. We love that such a social wearable can open the door to real Arduino programming.
Although Jewelbots can be used by an individual child (or adult, actually), it's their Code With Friends library that really interested us. You can buy one Jewelbot for $49, but we recommend the $129 Squad Three Pack, so that your gift recipient can involve other kids in the coding process.
Quick gift ideas
If you're more interested in teaching (or learning) coding than giving gifts, here are some great resources:
- Lynda.com membership: For $29.99 per month, you can gain or gift access to the entire Lynda.com training library. This has thousands of videos on all types of programming, as well as many other job skills. We've used it and have recommended it for years.
- Apple's Swift Playgrounds: If you or your gift recipient has an iPad (or you want an excuse to gift an iPad), Apple's Swift Playgrounds is a free app that will get you started. Also check out Apple's Everyone Can Code page.
So there you go. Twelve wonderful gifts and three bonus ideas that not only teach you how to code, they get you involved in building and making electronic projects.
See all of ZDNet's top picks.