Your adorable little child may grow up to live in a high-tech world where robots drive cars, clean floors, open doors, and hopefully don’t do anything scary, like take over the world!
But whether or not you want your kids to be prepared for such a future, sitting down and building a robot as a family can be be awesome cold-weather or holiday activity. It requires serious brain power, teaches principles of mechanics, and challenges patience and perseverance. It’s basically like all the reasons you loved building Legos, putting together puzzles, or doing crosswords in the olden days, but when you’re done, your creation can actually move.
Parents strive to treat their families to amazing experiences. Catapult, in partnership with Intel, is the field guide for the modern mom, offering tech-based at-home activities that will build lasting memories.
Building a robot—like any toy that requires instruction manuals and serious concentration and effort — can be frustrating. So set some simple and positive ground rules for everyone. To begin with, if you have more than one kid, separate out tasks by age — littler kid divide out the parts into piles, bigger one assemble them. Remind everyone that this is a project for fun and learning and that it might not come together perfectly in a super short time period, but there’s always a chance to keep working on it tomorrow and the next day.
Then spread out around the kitchen table or the floor of your favorite room and get building! Maybe you’re going out to buy a kit yourself, maybe you’re a DIY type, or maybe you’re about to sit down and make use of a toy kit that a kind relative sent your way. Whichever way you go, here are some suggestions for how to get started.
For the younger preschooler set, you can have fun with basic robots that come pre-assembled like the Fisher Price Think and Learn Teach ‘n Tag Movi and this amazing Doodling Robot that actually draws on paper. But older kids (kindergarten aged and up) will likely want to to build their own ‘bots.
If you’re up for doing it fully DIY, try these projects from Sciencebuddies, which require their simple and inexpensive DIY robotics kit and household tools like tape, glue, and toothbrushes. Tiny robotic toys like “brushbots” and “bristlebots” use little circuits to animate everyday objects, and you can get crafty and decorate them with googly eyes. They are seriously adorable and will provide hours of entertainment.
But if you are looking to buy a more involved kit for the holidays or a special birthday, there are so many great options. For a basic, fun, and stress-free first attempt, try Cubelets — the little robotic blocks snap together in different combinations and show different kinds of behaviors when they do. The cool thing about these is they require building, but there’s no “right” way to arrange the blocks, so they encourage experimentation and play. There is also a free app that works as a coding environment for the Cubelets robot blocks.
Lego is another obvious entryway for older kids who already love playing with the blocks. Lego Boost is a creative toolkit that enables you to turn any lego set into a robot. It comes with a free tablet app, which contains all the step-by-step instructions for building and coding different pre-set robots — a guitar, a cat, a truck. It’s also basically a training ground for Lego’s more sophisticated Mindstorms sets which will appeal to high schoolers and adults, too.
Another great option for early builders are these incredible robot arms from Thames and Kosmos. Basically, it’s a collection of gears, pistons, axles, and an air tank that makes them move in different ways. Thanks to the involved 36-page manual, you can create arms that do tasks like grab objects from far away, lift a cup and hold it steady, and more. With this kind of set, you and your kids will really learn about the principles of mechanical engineering as well as having fun. If you want to get a little more techy, Thames and Kosmos has a Robotics Smart Machine kit with an app that works as the brains of the robot you build.
For teens and more advanced older kids who are serious about their robotics, Arduino is a more sophisticated way to build a robot, essentially from scratch. This article shows you how to get started building an entire robot arm using Arduino. Complicated as it seems, it’s likely stuff that your teen will be interested in and have seen before.
Whichever robotic route you choose, remember to take it step by step, keep track of small parts, and welcome our robotic overlords. Happy building!
Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC.
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