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From maths and science to art and literacy, toy manufacturers have been finding ways to combine learning with play for centuries. In the modern world, the next generation is likely to spend more and more time grappling with aspects of coding and computer programming in all aspects of their education and later working life. As a result, many leading brands are developing toys and tools that are designed to give young children a head start on the fundamentals of these vital disciplines.


With Christmas just around the corner, and in the spirit that it's never too early to start getting your children enthused about basic computing concepts, here are five of the must-have gifts for future coders this year.


Cubetto from Primo Toys


The Cubetto playset from Primo Toys offers an introduction to basic logic and commands for kids aged three to six. The children use a simple programming console and colour-coded direction blocks to direct a friendly wooden robot around a play mat. Coding blocks are associated with basic commands including forwards, left, right and function, introducing basic concepts such as algorithms and subroutines in an offline environment that allows the children to learn by doing. A series of different maps and educational storybooks are also available to help spark their imaginations and put their learning into context.



Code-a-pillar from Fisher Price


Iconic toy brand Fisher Price is helping to bring child's play into the digital age with Code-a-pillar, a colourful motorised toy built from seven connectable segments, each representing a specific function. By connecting these segments in different orders, children can enjoy an introduction to planning, sequencing and problem solving while exploring the various things the Code-a-pillar can do. Expansion packs are also available to offer a wider, more complex variety of programming options and functions.





When children are ready to start interacting with real computers, the innovative wearable Codebug offers an excellent entry-level learning experience. Touch-sensitive inputs and an LED display allow the user to display graphics or create a number of simple games using a colourful online drag and drop interface. Once the child has written their program using this interface, they simply upload it to the Codebug via USB to run the program in the real world.




SAM Labs Inventor Kit


Described by Huffington Post as 'Lego for the internet generation', SAM Labs offers a variety of standalone modules and inventor kits providing all the tools a child needs to build simple connected devices including alarms, racing cars and mini drum machines that can be wirelessly activated using bluetooth to carry out a range of functions and commands. A dedicated SAM app uses simple visual programming language to help kids to develop their programs and test out a variety of different features.



BBC micro:bit


Aimed at children aged 11 and above, who may already have some experience on more rudimentary devices such as the Codebug, the BBC micro:bit is a pocket-sized codeable computer that can be used independently as a programmable wearable or to create simple games and tools, or connected to other devices such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Kano, littleBits and more as a springboard for more complex learning. Developed by the British Broadcasting Association (BBC) to inspire the next generation of tech pioneers, over one million BBC micro:bit devices were provided to year 7 students across the UK in 2016, with a wide variety of project guides and learning materials made available on their official website.


STEM ScoutsThe Boy Scouts have a grand tradition of helping to equip young members with practical life skills with real-world applications. In the past this has meant outdoor survival skills such as knot tying, cooking and map reading. However, the next generation of Boy Scouts may be more interested in coding than campfire songs - and several troupes have begun updating their activities accordingly to attract new members and help drag the venerable institution into the 21st century.


The STEM Scouts program is an offshoot of the Boy Scouts of America, using hands-on activities, field trips and mentorship opportunities to help participants to develop their skills and confidence in fundamental STEM concepts outside the classroom environment. Where parents might get involved with a traditional scout camp by volunteering as troop leaders, in STEM Scouts they can volunteer as assistant lab leaders - helping them to brush up on their own skills while sharing the experience with their children.


STEM Scouts also aims to continue the drive towards inclusivity and modern values that has seen the Boy Scouts transform many of their policies in recent years. Boys and girls are welcome at STEM Scout events, and units are split into distinct groups to help children from elementary to high school age to get involved at a level that will be interesting and rewarding to them. The focus is very much on participation and leadership rather than rank advancement or grades.


While STEM Scouts is far from the first extra-curricular STEM program, the hope is that by putting it STEM activities into the framework of scouting, they can attract a different demographic of children who may not necessarily gravitate towards existing math and coding clubs. As STEM Scouts national director April McMillan explains, "the idea is more to get kids excited in the STEM field, and less about giving them hard job-training skills." Participants are therefore encouraged to take the reins during projects rather than following a set learning schedule, with plenty of room for experimentation and trial and error.


The fundamental scouting principles of community service and character building are also woven heavily into STEM Scouts, with assignments including designing games and learning transferable skills that they can teach in children's hospitals and nursing facilities. They have also proven useful for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those who speak English as a second language, providing an environment where they can learn and interact with their fellow students in an environment where the focus is not on grades or following curriculum - areas where many students in these demographics statistically struggle, often dissuading them from pursuing further studies.


To date, STEM Scounts has formed more than 200 labs across the USA, allowing more than 2,000 children to participate in their program of activities. As with the Boy Scouts themselves, the labs are run by volunteers from the local community - usually parents or teachers. The program typically involves weekly meetings with regular field trips and four-to-six week learning modules on completion of which participants receive the ultimate Boy Scout accolade - a badge.


Did the Boy Scouts help to shape your interest in engineering as a child? Are you involved with any STEM Scout programs today? Let us know in the comments section below...