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
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.
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.
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.