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.
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.
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.
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.
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.