Chances are that when you were in preschool, grade school, or even high school, learning how to program a computer was the last thing you had on your mind (for some of us, there were barely even computers in our classrooms!). But with so many kids learning how to play on a tablet before they can even sing their ABCs, it's no wonder there's such a strong push to teach kids how to code  as early as possible. And while the concept of stringing lines of abstract code together may sound well beyond a preschooler's reach, with today's toys and games, kids as young as 3 years old can learn how to command a robot (or a parent) to move forward, left, and right and spin in circles. Don't believe us? Check out these toys, games, and apps designed to teach children of all ages how to code!
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Before kids even know their numbers or letters, they understand the directions that arrows show. The Bee-Bot  ($90) allows tots to harness that knowledge and put it to work. So once kids push a few of the directional buttons and then hit "Go," the Bee-Bot blinks its eyes and follows the commands — ultimately giving tots their first programming experience.
Preschoolers: Robot Turtles
It only took five hours for the Robot Turtles Kickstarter campaign to reach its fundraising goal of $25,000 (it actually raised more than $630,000). And this Summer, the turtles come to life — or to a store near you — thanks to Think Fun, the educational game company. What started as a Kickstarter campaign has turned into
Robot Turtles  ($25, available June 2014), which doesn't rely on a computer or even batteries to teach tots about programming — it uses an old-fashioned board game. In Robot Turtles, kids are in control, trying to get their turtle to a matching colored jewel. To get there, they pick cards with picture instructions, and the grown-ups must follow the instructions, just as a computer does.
Available later this year, Ludos  (formerly known as Cloudboard) is designed to teach preschoolers how video games are programmed. Using a board that connects to a computer or tablet, kids place puzzle pieces into the board to help the characters find solutions to their puzzles. So when you want the character to jump, you place the jump piece into the next available slot, and when you want him to run faster, you place the fast piece on the board. When strung together (like a code), the pieces instruct the characters how to move.
Kindergarteners: Play-i's Bo and Yana
Using play to teach coding, Play-i's Bo and Yana  ($228 for both Bo and Yana, available Christmas 2014) look like two fun little robots, but they're actually early programming tools that kids as young as 5 years old can control. While kids engage in storytelling, music, and make-believe play, Bo (the moveable, three-wheeled robot) can blink his eyes, dance, play music, and deliver flowers on command. At the same time, Yana (the stationary robot) can roar like a lion or make helicopter sounds when shaken. The robots work with a Bluetooth-based remote control app that has kids use icon-based sequences to create commands for the robots.
Kindergarteners: Move the Turtle App
The Move the Turtle app  ($3) introduces kids ages 5 and up to the general concept of coding/programming through the use of graphics. Step by step, they will complete tasks that move the turtle around the screen. Once those tasks are executed, newer and more complex tasks are introduced.
Grade School: Code.org Site
Leave it to executives from top tech companies like Apple, Yahoo!, Google, Disney, and Facebook, as well as President Barack Obama, Ashton Kutcher , and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to lead the way with a program designed for elementary-school-age children. On Code.org's website  (free), kids can "help" an Angry Bird catch a pig by telling it to move forward, left, or right. Once the actions are strung together, the bird starts following to code. If it doesn't catch the pig, kids can take out one or more actions to "course correct."
Grade School and Up: Lego Mindstorms EV3
For the kid who's already got the basics down, Lego's Mindstorms EV3  ($350) may be the ultimate programmable robot. Kids (and grown-ups) can build the robot into one of five different versions and then program it to walk, talk, and think. Don't just want it to move on its own? Grab the remote control and help it move that way, or download a free app and move it with your phone or tablet. Either way, the robot will do what your child instructed it to do!