LEGO has announced the WeDo 2.0 kit (not yet available in Australia) which is a bit like Mindstorms-lite. It looks very cool although expensive and aimed directly at the school environment. Hackaball is a robotic, well, ball. You can program it do a range of things, reacting as it is thrown. Hackaball releases in March for US$85. Dash and Dot from Wonder Workshop have been around for a while and are slick and well-thought through. Then there’s Ozobot which shades into a slightly older group but is a lovely bit of kit. And this is all just a smattering of the range aimed at younger kids.
So I’ve been thinking for a while about how much you can learn from robotics for younger kids. The only answer is that ‘it depends’. The danger with things aimed at younger kids is that thy end up playing with them without learning anything, so if you treat your robot as a remote-controlled car you might have fun but there’s not much robotics in it. The real trick is in getting the kids to have fun while exposing them to robotics and programming. That’s the trick for the people making these things and I think the jury is entirely out on how successful they are proving. And the jury’s going to remain out pretty much indefinitely too, because it’s hard to know how much of a difference playing with a robot makes to a 4- or 5-year-old mind.
That said, the trick for parents is in (a) finding the right kit that will engage your kid’s interest (Hackaball, for example, may not work so well if you live in an apartment and your kid doesn’t enjoy throwing things) and then (b) not assuming that your kid is going to get anything out of the experience without your active involvement. None of these kits are a catch-all panacea that’s going to teach your kids STEM skills without any further effort. They are tools that taken together with active adult engagement will expose your kids to some basic concepts.
They do all look like a lot of fun though.