Top Toy Trend: Coding 101

10/11/2016 03:44 pm ET

Toys that enhance kids’ STEM skills are extremely popular, but this year, toy manufacturers are focusing in on one key component of the STEM curriculum: coding.

Coding is the language of the future, and it shapes the technology we use everyday. From the software on your computer, to the apps on your phone, to all of the social media accounts you scroll through on a daily basis, these platforms are all made with code. People who know the ins and outs of coding have some of the most in-demand jobs in the world today—and you’re never too young to start learning.

Coding may seem really challenging, but toy companies are finding great ways to make elementary concepts less intimidating, even for kids in preschool. Plus, there are more advanced options on the shelves to engage tweens and teens. Toys are not just fun and games, there is almost always an educational component to anything kids are playing with, and this year, the STEM sector will feature great products that break down complicated concepts into exciting experiences that will activate kids’ interest in coding. Here are some of our favorite coding toys for kids!

This highly intelligent and fully adorable insect from Fisher-Price will teach kids ages 3 and up all about cause and effect and sequencing, two key elements of coding. The Code-a-Pillar features eight detachable segments, each featuring a different command, like turn left, turn right, or go forward. Kids can connect the segments together and send the tech-enhanced toy on a path they design. The set even includes two targets that kids can place around the room and try to program the Code-a-Pillar to go from one target to the other. This inventive toy is bright and engaging, full of silly sound effects, and will get kids crawling around on the floor as they learn about coding. Win, win, win.

With Learning Resources’ brilliant STEM set, kids build a maze, place a wedge of cheese at the end, and then program the mouse to make its way to its prize. Kids can link up the foundation, slip in tiny purple walls, and place arches along the way. Then, they can figure out which moves the mouse needs to make to get his cheesy snack. Kids can use the 20 STEM maze cards to set up puzzles, or design their own challenges. This set teaches kids all about problem solving, while also enhancing creativity skills and building confidence in their unique designs and coding ability.

It’s got a big head, and little arms—and kids have to build all of it! This interactive dinosaur from Spin Master comes unassembled, so kids can follow simple instructions to put it all together and create their own prehistoric pal. Once built, kids can use the simple buttons on the dino’s back to program him to have different responses and actions. Kids can record specific action sequences and play them back again and again to customize their play experience. Meccasaur gives kids a great way to learn programming as the build, engage, and interact with this walking, talking dinosaur. It even gives kids insight on robotics and engineering. Meccasaur is a complex build and has lots of play value, perfect for kids ages 10 and up.

Bloxels, from Mattel, is an app-based video game that allows kids to create and play their own custom video game levels. Bloxels fuses physical programming with a digital, enhanced app to teach kids about if/then and simple programming. The set comes with a 13×13 black grid and 320 colored blocks. Each block represents a different element of the video game, such as terrain (green), hazards (red), coins (yellow), enemies (purple), and power ups (pink). Kids can place the colored blocks into the grid, and then scan their creation into the app to bring it to life in an animated, real-working video game. Kids will learn how something basic, such as a simple colored block, can translate into a complex element. Kids can even create their own characters, and play levels designed by other users. Bloxels taps into creativity, imagination, and so much more.

Toy that teaches real Arduino coding + fun video game = happy tweens. Thames & KosmosCodeGamer lets players ages 10 and up engage with a real-world experiment kit while they play through a 15-level app using a tablet or smartphone. In the game, kids will come across obstacles that they can solve by writing pieces of code. Kids will even write their own programs and develop new apps for the gamepad sensors, which are heat, motion, sound, and light sensitive. With so many different educational elements in this kit, kids can even learn how the gamepad works or create their own game levels and challenges. Unlike some of the basic coding toys on the market, CodeGamer is the only one that actually teaches real Arduino coding, not just cause and effect or trial and error.

Check out more of our favorite STEM toys in the Toy Insider’s STEM 10 list, part of the 2016 Holiday Gift Guide.

Laurie Schacht, also known as The Toy Insider Mom, has covered the toy industry for more than 20 years. The Toy Insider is a year-round resource for parents, grandparents and other gift-givers looking for the best toys for their kids. The Toy Insider also produces an annual holiday gift guide featured in Family Circle magazine. Visit thetoyinsider.com for the latest toy news, reviews, giveaways, and more.

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