In addition to iPads, laptops, and smart phones, the last few years have brought us new kinds of toys. Here Joan Tanenhaus reviews some of the latest, including electronic toys, smart toys with related apps, robots, and augmented reality toys, that encourage language, STEM, reasoning and thinking, motor skills, creative play, and help children of all ages to have fun

Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-pillar (Fisher-Price, Mattel: www.fisher-price.com/thinkandlearn)

Fisher Price Think and Learn Website.

This is an amazing toy! It’s designed for young children… but once you take it apart, put it together again, and press the start button, you will see its valuable application to a wide range of learning, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking, interactive play and as a beginning step in learning coding. In a preschool or kindergarten classroom, Code-a-pillar makes an interesting centre for two to four children working together to send the Code-a-pillar on a trip — from errorless play to creating a set of directions, children will explore and learn in a non-threatening and rewarding environment. At home, it is a toy that presents appropriate play for siblings over a wide range of ages and skill levels.

The Code-a-pillar contains the head and control button segment and then there are eight additional segments. Each of these are marked with a colour and signal light that tells you the direction it will take — (3) green arrow forward, (2) orange arrow left, (2) yellow arrow right, and a music segment. Segments pull apart and snap together easily with USB-type connectors and there is no right or wrong order. Connect any way you like and press the button and the Code-a-pillar reviews its program (each segment lights up in turn) and then it begins its route.

The segment being played flashes — when it completes, it stops flashing and the next one begins flashing. You can use a few segments, all segments, or add additional segments (up to 15) from three available expansion packs: Basic (has one forward, one 90-degree right-turn and one 90-degree left-turn); Master Moves (one 180-degree left-turn, one 45-degree right-turn, and a Repeat segment, and Silly Sounds & Light (one Sleepy ZZZs sound, one Wacky sound and one Happy sound).

There are many ways to encourage children to play creatively as well as learn. First step for the youngest learners is just pressing the button to start the Code-a-pillar on its journey. Then, they can learn to pull apart and put together the pieces — in any order they want. As they do this, they will observe (and can be taught to observe) the differences in the routes — Did it go straight? Did it turn? How far did it go? etc. Then they will begin to observe the visual directions on each segment and begin to understand its symbolic meaning. As they rearrange and program different combinations, they can learn to plan and sequence a path, and learn to get wherever they want — from start to finish, under a table, around a chair, on and on. And as they do this, they develop problem-solving skills, critical and analytical thinking, sequencing, beginning coding and more, playing alone or together with others.


Code-a-pillar app: Available for Apple and Android

Think & Learn Code-a-pillar: This app contains maze and number coding games featuring a digital Code-a-pillar, and containing drag-and-drop command segments, along with rewards, sound effects and animations. Content levels up as you play, with each level introducing and reinforcing a new concept.

The app lays out a path in front of the Code-a-pillar and players drag and drop command segments to guide him. Press his head (just like the Smart Toy) and he will try it out and if he gets stuck, players are guided with helpful explanations. The more they play, the more they learn!


Bee-Bot and Accessory Mats

In US available from Terrapin: www.bee-bot.us

In UK available from Inclusive: www.inclusive.co.uk

Bee-Bot is a smiling, yellow-and-black rechargeable floor robot, specifically designed for young children. It can be directed (programmed) to move forward, back, left and right using four directional keys, a pause key and a Go button located on its top surface. Individual directions or a sequence of directions can be given. When given a sequence, it can be followed step by step as Bee-Bot blinks and beeps at the end of each command. At the end of the complete sequence, the unit will stop and play a sound (which can be turned off, if desired). Each forward or backward command moves the unit approximately 5.9 inches (150 mm), and the turn command causes the unit to rotate 90 degrees. A clear button is used to clear the sequence and make Bee-Bot ready for a new series of directions. Easy to use, with simple, clear directional buttons, Bee-Bot is great for teaching sequencing, estimation, problem-solving and directionality within a context of maths, art and social studies. Once these basic concepts are understood, Bee-Bot can be used with an amazing collection of accessory mats to teach and reinforce many other subjects. Bee-Bot can be purchased individually or in bundles with multiple Bee-Bots and accessories for classes or schools. Bee-Bot is an excellent learning toy for ages three and up, for both home and school use. Great fun while also learning the basics of programming and coding and then applying them to a variety of learning material.

Accessory Mats really expand the learning potential of this Smart Toy. For example, the Alphabet Mat contains the lower case letters of the alphabet on a washable vinyl mat measuring 33 inches by 40 inches (75 cm by 90 cm) There are six rows of five letters each, each box measuring about 6½ inches square. Navigating Bee-Bot around the mat helps students to practise letter recognition while at the same time working on sequencing and maths skills. The Shapes, Colors and Size Mat has 16 squares, four shapes in different sizes and shapes, each shape a Bee-Bot step away from the next —children learn colours, shapes and sizes while also planning and counting. Other Mats have CVC Words, US Coins, Maps, a Number Line, etc. The Dry Erase Mat, which comes with pens and a cleaning cloth, lets you create your own mat that Bee-Bot can explore, as it follows student directions. The mat is smooth, easy to write on and erases cleanly.  The Card Mat is a white vinyl 36 inches by 36 inches grid covered with a clear plastic sheet that can be lifted up. Teachers or students can put images on the grid anywhere they choose and then cover them up with the attached clear plastic sheet.

Bee-Bot app: Available for Apple and Android

Bee-Bot: This app is a game based on Bee-Bot and can be used to introduce basic programming to children. The game replicates the Bee-Bot control buttons and allows children to become familiar with the concepts of directionality in a step-by-step manner. There are 12 levels of play with increasing complexity at each new level. Children unlock doors, collect treasure and out-smart the Mummies as they go along. They learn to move their on-screen Bee-Bot by giving it a set of sequential commands that they program in by pressing the on-screen arrow keys (which match the buttons on the Bee-Bot robot).

Make sure to visit the Bee-Bot Download Center (https://www.bee-bot.us/downloads.html) for extensive support and downloads of all kinds of documentation, tutorials and specific information and applications.

Blue-Bot and TacTile Reader

In US available from Terrapin: www.blue-bot.us

In UK available from Inclusive: www.inclusive.co.uk

Blue-Bot takes Bee-Bot to the next level. Blue-Bot has a Bluetooth connection so you can program it from your iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, from a Windows and Mac computer or from a TacTile Reader, in addition to just using the on-board keys. Create a program, send it via Bluetooth and watch Blue-Bot follow the program. The Blue-Bot app (see below) adds additional capability for 45-degree turns and repeating commands which expands the programming experience. With sturdy construction and a clear shell, Blue-Bot shows its components and inner workings.

Blue-Bot TacTile Reader is a rechargeable programming device used to control Blue-Bot. After pairing the Blue-Bot with the TacTile Reader, individual tiles, each representing a Blue-Bot command, are placed on the reader. It holds up to 10 tiles and up to three TacTile Readers can be connected, so students can build programs of up to 30 steps. When the Go button is pressed, the Blue-Bot will move step by step through the program while the TacTile Reader lights up each command as Blue-Bot performs it. To change a program, just switch the order of the tiles. Twenty-five Blue-Bot command tiles are included, and supplemental packs are available. This can be used to introduce remote programming without the use of apps and tablets and makes learning to code a more direct experience.

Blue-Bot can also be used with the Accessory Mats reviewed above.

Blue Bot apps: Available for Apple and Android

Blue-Bot Remote: This app turns your tablet or phone into a step-by-step remote control for your Blue-Bot. Buttons can be enabled or disabled, and sounds can be recorded and played as the buttons are used. Excellent way for the youngest user to learn the relationship of the arrows to the directions.

BlueBot: This app lets users send directions via Bluetooth and Blue-Bot (on the floor and on the iPad/tablet) will then follow them. In Explore mode, there is (1) step-by-step programming — press a command and the Blue-Bot follows the direction, one step at a time. (2) drag-and-drop programming — drag and drop a series of commands, press go to see whole program (3) Repeat — teaches user to give repeat commands, i.e. up arrow x three instead of having to put three up arrows. In Challenge mode, there are games to get from A to B, get from A to B while avoiding obstacles, get to goal using only the buttons provided, and following random directions. Users can select any on-screen grid to play on — digital Accessory Mat grids are included and you can create your own grid using the device’s camera.


Think & Learn Teach ’n Tag Movi (Fisher-Price, Mattel: www.fisher-price.com/thinkandlearn)

This is a new interactive electronic robot-like toy with a goal to get young children’s minds learning and their bodies moving. As the games are played, the toy moves around the room on its three wheels. Movi’s eyes and mouth light up in different colours and patterns, as he talks and plays games. There are three modes with two games in each mode, all easily accessible by pressing the buttons on Movi’s ‘tummy’ and head: Alpha Fun Actions is the first mode and includes two games: Animal Actions (listen about an animal and its action and then do it—i.e. ‘ABCD — duck-waddle like a duck’ and also sing and dance to an ABC song) and Movi Says (listen to prompts and follow directions, this game is like Simon Says — i.e. ‘Movi says raise your hand high’). Think & Move Shapes is the second mode and includes two more games: Shape Moves (listen to directions or a question — press a button on Movi’s head to choose the correct answer) and Step-by-Step (listen to each dance move: step forward, step backward, touch your knees, wave your hands, etc. and repeat, faster and faster).

Learn & Play Games is the third mode and includes Red Light Green Light (when you hear ‘green light’ — walk, skip or hop until you hear ‘red light’ and then freeze!) and Silly Sounds Tag (Catch Movi and tap a button) and also a quiz game (Listen to the question and press a button to answer.) Movi can teach and reinforce basic skills, like following directions, counting, reasoning and thinking and asks questions or gives directions. Designed for ages three to six, this toy is good for even younger children who can join in the fun with older siblings and friends and press the buttons, walk and move, catch Movi, press the buttons and imitate. As the children play and move together, they are also mastering some basic pre-school readiness skills. As current research is showing us, the addition of movement along with educational content enhances learning, making this a powerful toy for young children. Like Code-a-pillar, it’s also great to see toys designed that older and younger children can play together and each have fun and true learning experiences.


Dr. Panda Plus: Home Designer (Dr. Panda: www.Drpanda.com/plus)

Dr. Panda Plus: Home Designer is an augmented reality toy set. Augmented Reality blends digital objects with information from the environment — and lets you interact simultaneously with both. Home Designer contains an app (downloadable from the App Store, Google Play and Amazon) and a set of cards that communicate with your iPad or Android tablet/smartphone. In the Design mode, the app presents the user with their new home, all ready to move in — but with only minimal furnishings. It’s up to the users to make the house cosy and comfortable and reflective of their own personal style.

There are 12 washable and erasable markers and 51 flashcards that contain pictures of household objects and eight delightful and familiar Dr. Panda characters. One side of each flashcard is colourful and complete while the other side is a black and white drawing, ready to be designed by the young artist playing the game. After the card is coloured any way that pleases them, they scan it with the smartphone or tablet camera and watch the object magically appear on screen in the house — ready to be moved around, placed anywhere they like, and used by the occupants (i.e., make a colourful blanket on the bed, scan the picture into the bedroom, place it where you like and put one of the characters on it to go to sleep). Pick your favourite occupants for the house, colour their shirts and scan them so they can move in.

If children want to change the design of the furniture, or the colour of the blanket, or the shirts the play family wears — just wipe, re-draw and re-scan. The app, like the many Dr. Panda apps, is open-ended and limitless in its creative appeal. There are no rules and no directions. Home Designer can be appreciated by a wide range of developmental ages and stages — from beginning play with a parent or older sibling to independent play with creative story-telling and complex scenarios. Children can interact with the characters — give them a book to read, turn the lights on and off, open and close the curtains, and so much more. Make two houses and tell a story about the neighbours. In addition, Dr. Panda has added a learning component with letter matching, word recognition and spelling tasks.

As well as the above Design Mode, there is a Quest Mode. In this mode, children can help the characters move into their new homes. The characters ask for what they need and children find the right flash cards for them. Dr. Panda Home Designer is the first in a future series of app-connected toys from Dr. Panda, using Augmented Reality to enhance creativity and learning! Home Designer is a well-thought-out, highly motivating toy that encourages open-ended play, creative thinking, problem solving, language and social skills.


CHiP (Wowwee: www.wowwee.com)

CHiP is an interactive robotic dog that responds to the environment and to those around it — with sound, movement and action. With advanced sensors and smart accessories, CHiP stays aware, ready to play, and can sense the surroundings and know where certain things are in relation to itself. When its battery is running low, CHiP flashes its eyes, barks and heads out to find its SmartBed. It backs itself up and positions just right so that it gets recharged and ready to go in a short time. CHiP can respond to gesture-based interactions like swipes, claps, touch and more. Bluetooth Low Energy and InfraRed Vision allow it to connect to and interact with the other included smart devices — a ball that it can fetch and play soccer with, the SmartBed, and the SmartBand (watch-like device). Capacitive sensor technology enables CHiP to respond to touch (swipes, pats, pets, pokes, spins, lifts, etc.) and speech recognition technology enables it to respond to its name and a list of commands. CHiP also connects with an App from the Apple Store and Google Play Store that provides additional control and gameplay.

CHiP is about 11 inches long and 9 inches high, with a friendly robotic look. Eyes flash different colours providing feedback to the user. It moves easily across different floor textures (carpet, wood, stone, etc.). Children can pet CHiP and Chip will lie down and get excited. They can tap Chip on the nose and CHiP will respond, tap CHiP’s head to make CHiP sit or lie down or stand up. Using voice commands, they can tell CHiP to sit, dance, play, fetch, do yoga, play soccer, and CHiP will do as told. Just saying ‘Hey Chip’ gets its eyes flashing and CHiP barking. Using the SmartBand, they can press command icons to get CHiP to follow these and other commands. CHiP will also follow you around if you are wearing the SmartBand and set it to Follow mode. The CHiP app gives the user even more control. They can rename their pet, use as a remote control, have CHiP do tricks and give it virtual treats. Updates are frequent and new functions are continuously being added. All iPhone and iPad devices (except for the original iPad and  iPad 2) with iOS 9 or higher will work with CHiP. For Android devices, most Bluetooth Smart Ready devices running Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) or later should work. The easiest way to check compatibility before buying is to attempt to download the CHiP app. If your device is not compatible, Google Play will not let you download or install the app. Try watching some of the excellent training videos on the website to get a sense of how much fun and how interactive CHiP can be.


 Coder MiP (Wowwee: www.wowwee.com)

Coder MiP is a new, programmable version of MiP, the self-balancing robot. It is a fun and motivating way to learning about coding and robotics. Standing about 7½ inches high and now running with a rechargeable battery, Coder MiP looks just like the original MiP, except that it is transparent and you can actually see its electronic insides. Very cool! Like the original MiP, you can make Coder MiP move with gesture control — using your hands in front of it. Making different gestures, you can make MiP move forward, backward, turn, stop, etc. There are other modes, including Roam Mode (MiP moves around independently, avoiding obstacles and exploring); Dance Mode (dances around to music); Cage Mode (a movement game); and Trip mode (program MiP with gestures and then, with two claps, execute the sequence).

Coder MiP apps: Available for Apple and some Android models

MiP: This app lets you use your phone or tablet as a remote control and go forward, back, spin, turn, and more. Other included app games are: Cans (pick emotions such as sleepy, happy, grumpy, sad, etc. and MiP will act out the feelings); Dance (to your music); Boxing; Following a path you draw on the iPad/iPhone, and a Stacking Game (on the enclosed tray). Coder MiP even has a stunt teeter ramp and Off-Road Stunt Tyres to increase the fun.

Coder MiP: With this app, Coder MiP can be programmed with simple drag-and-drop commands (codes). To program from your phone or tablet, users drag commands to create a sequence. They select an Event first (an action that triggers the code) such as Clap, Position Change, Gesture, & others. There are also Actions (chest lights, Sound Effects, Fall Over & others); Motion (drive forward, backward, rotate, etc.) and Logic (Wait & Repeat). All these commands have further options — for example, for Position Change, you can select fall backward, fall forward, or on pick-up. For Drive Forward, you can control for how long and how far. With these many possible combinations, players begin to understand how each change causes the action of Coder MiP to change within a simple and later a more complex sequence. The writing of the code is very intuitive — just follow the sequence. MiP doesn’t let you make a mistake.

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About Contributors

Joan Tanenhaus, MA, CCC, speech-language pathologist/assistive technology specialist, is Founder and Executive Director of Technology for Language and Learning, Inc., a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the use of computers and technology with children and adults with special needs. (e-mail: ForTLL@aol.com)

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