A Survey of Apps, Toys and Sites for Learning to Code


A Survey of Apps, Toys and Sites for Learning to Code

By the CTR Editors and Reviewers http://bit.ly/childrencode

“I fell in love with the gears. This is something that cannot be reduced to purely “cognitive” terms. Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form. My thesis could be summarized as: What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes. This book is the result of my own attempts over the past decade to turn into instruments flexible enough so that many children can each create for themselves something like what the gears were for me.” Seymour Papert (1980, in MindStorms)

“The best coding experiences tie all abstract work to things that are meaningful.” Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. Basic Books, Inc. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1095592

We’ve now reviewed over 50 products that come with some sort of implied promise that they will help your child become a coder. See the complete list http://bit.ly/childrencode. Here’s a roundup of some of the more noteworthy selections, with some discussion of the strengths and weaknesses. As with any product roundup, information changes frequently and quickly, and our observations are only the start of the discussion. If you know of products we’ve missed, or have a view different than ours, please make a note in CTREX.

What, Exactly, is Coding? It’s a fair question. Highly publicized efforts like the “hour of code” and OLPC give the illusion that if you give a child a machine and a good computer language, they can be Bill Gates. The reality is that “coding” is a multifaceted concept that generally falls under the Mathematics wing of the curriculum. Some call it a Higher Order Thinking  Skill (HOTS) or “logical thinking” with a strong dose of problem solving (aka “debugging”). Many activities fall into this category, including writing, composing music, creating a play and so on. You can think of Beethoven or Mozart as early coders, who used musical notation as their language for “programming” a group of musicians.

Technology can both accelerate or slow the HOTS potential. An addicting video game like Angry Birds and or Minecraft can remove hours of time from a child’s prime waking learning hours. It’s not that they’re not learning from these activities. It’s more that they may be missing out on some more powerful “coding” types of experiences. That’s why balance is so important when introducing Coding experiences.

It’s useful to revisit the ideas of Seymour Papert, who viewed computers as a way to help children construct their own knowledge. Papert, a student of Jean Piaget, understood how a computer language could provide the ideal garden for planting some big ideas. Many commercial products and apps today have strayed from this idea, by reducing the “code” to nothing more than moving a dog through a maze, to get a bone. Real coding is really higher order thinking activity, that has roots in several curriculum areas; especially math. But it also has elements of problem solving, communication, language, art and music.


Like training wheels, these tools can give children a taste of code. But they have limited functionality. You can’t actually “make stuff.”

Code Studio or www.code.org ($free on any browser) is a great way to introduce some basic programming ideas. It is a key part of the code.org initiative, launched to try to get computer programming into every school. Free content (no registration required) includes six self-guided, online tutorials with video lectures by tech role models such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg plus game-based activities designed around popular games like Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and Flappy Bird. Features include a Play Lab that lets you send programs to a cell phone via a text message. The actual coding resembles MIT’s Scratch — you drag blocks that represent commands into place to see what they do. Each block snaps into place. The activities are well designed and guide you through each part of the process, step-by-step (until you’ve reached your “hour of code.”)

CotBot City ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle). Think Sim City for toddlers, and you have the idea of this simple, well designed town building game from Sweden. The app turns your screen into a six block city. You first select from 8 buildings to drop into the six squares on your city map. Next, you start driving by tilting the screen. There are six vehicles and your city and the characters respond accordingly as you drive. Video: http://youtu.be/-HSC_029dj8

The Foos ($free on iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle, Mac OSX, Internet Site). Easy to learn, and full of playful characters, this early programming experiences mixes an Angry Birds type of leveling system with Scratch-style programming icons. In order to move your “Foo” character across the screen to a star, you must drag and drop the correct sequence of commands in the right order. Everything happens in realtime, so it’s easy to experiment. There’s a handy stick of dynamite — just in case.

Hopscotch 3.0 ($free on iPad, iPhone) is the first touch screen early coding experience (running on the iPad for three years). This year’s (May 2016) edition (3.0.1) has two noteworthy features: the interface has been reworked for smaller phone-sized screens, and it is now possible to download or share projects with others, as long as you register (you are prompted for a user name, password and email address). These new community features make Hopscotch more “Scratch-like.” That also means it’s easy to participate in a community of coders to share ideas and projects. Like Scratch, you start by adding one or more sprites to the screen. Video: https://youtu.be/foRi5bDaIz0

Lightbot Jr. ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone, Android) is a 3D spatial programming puzzle game that asks you to move small robot through a stack of blocks using simple forward/turn/jump commands. The puzzles are easier and there is more help (than the Sr. version). There are 42 puzzles, that start with simple forward, backward, right and left, and move up to loops, where a function block can be used to represent a cluster of commands. The looping music can be muted at any time. There are no in-app purchases or gimmicks.

Lightbot ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone, Android) is the “senior” version of Lightbot (see also Lightbot Jr.), presenting a collection of programming puzzles that use touch-and-drop commands. There are six sets of puzzles, each with nine challenges. Each starts locked, and must be solved in order, sequentially. Lightbot was created in Canada using the OpenFL/Lime framework by a University of Waterloo student, Danny Yaroslavski. Video http://youtu.be/BEUi8f34aNE

Tynker ($free with in-app purchases on iPad, iPhone, Android) is a well-designed set of self-paced challenges and tutorials. The complete bundle is available as an in-app purchase for $2.99. Levels have challenges like Lost in Space, which deals with geometric pen up and pen down commands, and Sketch Racer, which contains an additional 48 puzzles featuring snap the turtle.


LittleBigPlanet, ($60 on PlayStation) has always been one of our favorite game design platforms. It makes it possible to make your own beautiful side-scrolling worlds using a rag doll character. Levels can be saved and posted for others to try. It is rare to find a game that can both teachers and gamers like so much. Developed in the UK by Media Molecule Ltd. for Sony Computer Entertainment America. Video: http://youtu.be/sineUK_zt_k

Infinite Arcade, The ($2.99 on iPad), for ages 7-up lets you make basic versions of five varieties of classic video games (like Space Invaders or Pong) by dragging and dropping items onto your iPad screen and pressing “go.” After you create a player profile (name and avatar), you choose one of five game templates: pinball, ball & paddle, platformer, maze and (our favorite) a blank screen.

Super Mario Maker ($60 on Wii U) is a great first game making option, as long as you have a Wii U with the Wii U GamePad controller. You can freely drag and drop parts of your own sidescrolling challenges into place. You can then blend enemies, traps and items into unexpected twists, like Piranha Plantshooting cannons, and power-up-tossing Lakitus. Video: https://youtu.be/FOSLBncYzYI


Fisher-Price Code-A-Pillar


Think & Learn Code-A-Pillar ($50) can pull up to 15 snap together segments, although only eight come with the starter kit. They can be combined in anyway move forward, left, right, or wait and play a tune. Once the links are in place, you press the “GO” button to execute the commands – a rather sluggish process. You can send the Code-A-Pillar a short distance (about 5 feet) or place targets on the floor and try to see how close you can come to the goal. The base kit includes 8 segments plus the motorized head. Video: https://youtu.be/D8E6INeJO5g

COJI ($60 on iPad, Android, iPhone) is a small rolling robot with a small color screen for a face. After you pair the robot to your tablet or phone, you can program both the emotions as well as the movements. Besides a touch sensor on the head, COJI can can react to physical stimulation, such as tilting and shaking. The movements are fast and responsive on a hard surface. A tablet is required, plus the ability to download the accompanying app.

Osmo Coding ($75 for iPad). The magic is in the tiny mirror, which fits onto your iPad so that your iPad’s front camera can “see” the objects sitting on the table in front of it. In this case, it sees as set of 19 tiles, which you use to help a hungry creature (Awbie) through a maze to collect strawberries. The puzzles are well-designed, and the physical parts have a nice magnetic “snap” to them, making this a truly tangible experience. We wished there was a sandbox element to the activity, where you could freely explore with the coding parts. Video: https://youtu.be/jPNBh3lwCY4

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 ($350 on iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Mac OSX) has been around forever. The most recent kit mixes building opportunities with some unnecessary complexity — not to mention a hefty price. The brain of the system is the EV3 (short for evolution 3). About the size of a very fat bar of soap, the controller block comes with a one-color LCD screen and a primitive arrow-key menu system. We had hoped to find a touch screen interface and rechargeable batteries. Oh well… perhaps EV4.

Did you know… The LEGO Mindstorm concept represents the continuation of the philosophical marriage between LEGO and the similarly named programming language, Logo (with an o) that originally started 35 years ago. That’s when LEGO’s Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen contacted MIT’s Seymour Papert (following the publication of Mindstorms), in which he discussed the LOGO (Turtle programming) language. This conversation led to the 1988 release of an “intelligent brick” designed to “bring LEGO creations to life via computer programming” (according to a current LEGO press release). In 1998, a mainstream edition of the controller brick was released, called LEGO Mindstorms RCX; a highly regarded product by our testers. The Mindstorms concept started to become stale, however, and other DIY programming options started to come to market. From an educational/learning point of view, it is fair to raise the question — does all this “snap together” follow the step-by-step instructions really have anything to do with robotics? LEGO purists might be critical of this point. A child using these kits might spend time following somebody else’s ideas to complete a very cool robot, rather than coming up with their own. And once they are built, it is important that they take the extra step to program the brick, instead of just using a drive-around toy. On the other hand, creativity and structure can be good partners.

WeDo Robotics ($40 – $130 on Windows, Mac OSX). Designed for schools to give children an introduction to robotics, WeDo Robots is a software/hardware bundle that requires a newer Macintosh or Windows computer with a free USB port. The kit is more affordable than LEGO Mindstorms, and makes it easier to zoom in on specific programming concepts. Besides the programming experience, children can better understand working with simple machines, gears, levers, and pulleys. The $40 software features a drag-and-drop icon-based interface. The $130 Construction Set includes 158 pieces — including a motor, tilt sensor, motion sensor and USB hub. The third component is the Activity Pack ($130), a CD-ROM that features 12 activities which integrate with the WeDo software. The activities are based on four themes: Amazing Mechanisms, Wild Animals, Play Soccer, and Adventure Stories. The Activity Pack allows for installation on all computers in a single school or institution.

BB-8 ($150 on iPad, iPhone, Android). The size of a baseball, this speedy self-propelled Star Wars branded Sphero is controlled with your tablet or phone. The most striking new feature is the magnetic head, which glides on the top of the rolling ball — just like the movie BB-8, only on a much smaller scale (the movie version looks to be about the size of a beachball). A more accurate name is mini-BB-8. The process of charging and syncing the BB-8 to your tablet with Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) is easy. The app is nicely designed, offering more features than previous Spheros we’ve tested. The BB-8 is tricky to steer but fast. There’s also a high novelty effect with this toy that will fade in a few days. Video https://youtu.be/v08TIt5JCLA

Dash & Dot Wonder Pack ($280 on iPad, Android) is our favorite robot/programming combination. Dash — the main robot — is a responsive, programmable toy that works with your Android or iOS tablet. You download the free app and sync it via Bluetooth to control how it moves or lights up. You can also snap LEGO blocks onto either robot or attach your phone to a holder, turning the robot into a mobile recorder. Dot is the cheaper round ball. The two robots have the ability to interact with one another. Dash alone is $180; accessories are sold separately. https://youtu.be/iyUb4aDGL4E


Attributes by Math Doodles, ($2.99 on iPad) has seven mind-bending math activities, one of which deals with if/then statements; a core coding concept. There’s always a challenge, and children feel in control of the experience. Need to know: The if/else activity is especially useful for beginning programming settings. Video: https://youtu.be/zNoRttm_44c

Crazy Gears, ($1.99 on iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) is a leveled problem solving physics game lets children freely manipulate gears, chains, rods, pulleys and more to pull themselves to the next level. There are 61 puzzles, each with the same objective – – to pull up a cover over screen. There’s plenty of opportunities for making mistakes (also known as debugging) to see how different mechanisms affect one another when constructing a machine. For example, you find that adding a third gear will change the direction of rotation, and larger gears have less force. The parts snap together easily and there are often multiple ways to solve a problem. According to parent guide materials, “Crazy Gears was conceived as a tribute to mathematician and educational technologist, Seymour Papert, in hopes of providing children with the inspiration to discover and understand the physical properties of mechanisms found in their everyday lives.” Video https://youtu.be/UfU_5ZHgqbA

The Everything Machine ($2.99 on iPad). Turn the power of your iPad inside out. The idea is a good one — to give children pretty much unvarnished control over the technology inside an iPad or iPhone. That means the microphone, cameras, accelerometers and bluetooth connections. The app comes with a simple drag and drop programing language and tutorials, making it easy to make a motion or sound activated camera, for example. The tool box includes all sorts of items and functions that can be freely mixed and matched on a white screen. There are camera filters, voice distorters, sound and light detectors, timers, and color changers … we counted 48 total. This app uses the following Apple technologies:  iOS Frameworks + Plugins, AVFoundation (video + audio), Audio Units, MultipeerConnectivity, Core Animation, OpenGL, CoreImage, and WatchKit. The idea is if adult programmers can have these tools, why not kids?


Here are some serious tools, complete with their own publishing and sharing ecosystems, that let you make projects, upload code, access the source code of other programmers, and share ideas that can be downloaded and altered. We recommend starting with Scratch or App Inventor in the elementary years before graduating to Swift or Unity.

Scratch 2.0, ($free on Windows, Mac OSX, Chromebooks), for ages 6-up is our favorite all around early coding experience for children. Don’t start with Scratch Jr. Instead start children on Scratch. Version 2.0 is completely browser based (so there is no software to install). Scratch was the first product to turn commands into color coded jigsaw-puzzle pieces, that snap together. This visual system successfully lowered the barrier of entry for programmers. Visit http://scratch.mit.edu/ for more information.

MIT App Inventor ($free on Android, Windows, Mac OSX, Chrome for ages 8-up. Formerly called App Inventor for Android, this is a designed “to make it easy to do real-time programming.” It is available as a free download from http://appinventor.mit.edu/ for Android-based devices (that means not for iPad). It is not nearly as popular as Scratch, however, there are some important open source ideas in the DNA of this coding option. Unlike Scratch, it is designed See the interview with the Hal Albelson, on of the people who helped create Logo, at https://youtu.be/JcZImGHJ8mw

Swift Playgrounds, ($free on iPad) for ages 8-up. Coming Fall 2016 for iPad, along with iOS 10, Swift Playgrounds is a touchbased programming language designed in 2014 specifically for iOS, MacOS, WatchOS, TVOS and Linux. It is designed to work with Apple’s Cocoa and Cocoa Touch frameworks, and plays well with Objective-C and Xcode. You can’t use Swift for other platforms, like you can with Unity. Swift Playgrounds contains both puzzles and challenges. Both start easy and get harder, as new functions are introduced. In the first challenge, you move a creature named “Byte” through a maze. Swift Playgrounds will be free as of Fall 2016 and will work with iPads running iOS 10.

Roblox ($free and by subscription for Windows, Mac OSX) is both an online community for kids ages 8-16 and a set of game generation tools. The Roblox site (www.roblox.com) contains a collection of homemade games that vary widely in quality. You can find platformers, RPGs (role playing games), FPSs (first person shooters), racing, and simulations. All use the same physics-based sandbox world and incorporate MMO conventions like Minecraft or Second Life. If you are looking for fun, free-to-play web games, you may be better off looking elsewhere, but for creative kids interested in learning about making their own games, Roblox is a possibility.

Unity ($free to start, works on multiple platforms) for ages 12-up. Ready to make your own app? Want to use the tools that the professionals use? Unity is the cross-platform “game engine” or coding language used to make many of the apps and games we review. It was first developed by the San Francisco-based Unity Technologies. It’s cross-platform compatibility is a strength, because a programmer can reuse the same code, sound and graphics for different platforms (e.g., for both iOS and Android) with minimal tweaking. First announced only for OS X in 2005 (according to Wikipedia), it has since grown to 21 platforms (2016), and it is the default software development kit (SDK) for the Wii U. These platforms include iOS and Oculus 3D. The SDK (Software Development Kit) is free to download, but licensed versions are available as a subscription. For a serious game designer, Unity is a good language to learn, but it can take a huge investment in time. Many children graduate from Scratch and move into a program like Unity, to make “real apps.”

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