Reviewed by Louise Totton
Christmas, as far as most kids are concerned, is about toys. They are off school, high on sugar and are in full-on fun mode, and by the time the big day comes along, are almost literally in orbit! And it’s always the surprising toys that really capture their imagination too – not necessarily the big toys of the season, which unfortunately for us normally end in disappointment, but the ones that engage them and they get something new from every time they are switched on. They don’t need to have screens, flashing lights or expensive advertising campaigns, but they do have to be fun! Having said that, fun has different meaning for different kids, and there are a lot of fantastic educational toys these days that manage to be both fun and stimulating.
Some of the favourite toys in our house which have really stood the test of time, both in terms of build quality and how they engage the kids long term have been from Learning Resources. We have been lucky enough over the past year or so to have reviewed a number of different coding toys with the kids, but the one they go back to again and again is their Learning Resources Code & Go Mouse, which we have had for at least 4 years and probably more. It was an initial foray into coding for both of my girls and even now at the ages of 7 and 10, and with far more sophisticated coding toys in the house, they go back to it again and again. Because it’s great fun!
So when we heard that we were going to be sent a set of Coding Critters from Learning Resources, we were really keen to get our hands on them! The Coding Critters are a 100% screen-free, ready out of the box introduction to the basic principles of coding, aimed at kids aged 4-10. There are three different sets available: Dogs, Ranger and Zip; cats, Scamper and Sneaker; and dinosaurs, Rumble and Bumble. My two are both mad on cats, so were over the moon when we opened the package to find that we had been sent Scamper and Sneaker. Contained in the box was:
- Scamper – the codable critter
- Sneaker – Scamper’s sidekick
- 10 x coding pawprints
- Playset for coding games (house, slide, ball of wool, butterfly, fish)
- 3 x cardboard accessories with stands
- Full colour coding story book
The star of the show is Scamper, the codable critter and the larger of the two kittens. Scamper is a grey cat with a pink nose and a happy, smiley face that the kids loved. She requires 3 AAA batteries, which you will need to purchase separately, and these are inserted into the underside of Scamper where there is also a sliding power switch. On Scamper’s back are five buttons: four arrow buttons and a ‘go’ button. The directional arrow buttons are backwards, forwards, rotate 90° clockwise and rotate 90° anti-clockwise, so add an extra level of logical thought and sequencing – in order to turn left, the child needs to use a forward, rotate anti-clockwise, forward sequence.
My kids had a bit of an introduction to this kind of coding toy from reception at school onwards – their school uses Bee Bot as introductions to coding activities and I know that many other schools do too, so lots of children are familiar with this type of coding toy.
Contained in the set is a ‘story book’, which provides some initial context for the children to send Scamper off on her adventures. For example, one of the pages is about Scamper and Sneaker playing a game of hide and seek. We then placed some of the playset accessories around the floor and hid Sneaker (the smaller kitten) behind them. The kids were then tasked with programming Scamper using the directional keys on her back so she could locate Scamper, turning left and right to get behind different objects.
Another lovely aspect of the toy is Scamper’s magnetic nose. Sneaker is also magnetic, meaning that once Sneaker has found Scamper, she can ‘grab’ her and return her back home. For younger kids, they might take a ‘forwards’ route, but as mine are a little older, we extended the logical thinking a bit by reversing her – it’s far harder for their brain to compute a backwards route than a forwards one!
The plastic and cardboard playset pieces add a really fun element to this. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what the point of them was, but after playing with them, it’s clear that they add a lot of context to the set and allow the kids to engage with the tasks and the story aspect, which in turn switches them on to the coding much more. Scamper’s magnetic nose means that she can play with Sneaker as well as her ball of wool, and the Sneaker has great fun rolling down the slide and hiding behind trees.
As well as the coding mode, there is also a ‘play mode’, which is activated by pressing Scamper’s nose. In this mode, the children use the directional buttons on her back to feed her, pet her and even make her dance. My two thought this was very funny, and kids at the lower end of the recommended age range would benefit from it even more, allowing them to get to know their new pet and play with them as a toy as well as for coding.
I loved that this is a totally screen-free way of coding; it is not intimidating in any way to either younger kids or to parents who may never have seen a line of code in their life. It is an introduction to coding in its most simple form – sequential instructions, logical thinking and getting from a start point to a desired end point. It encourages interaction between child and parent to both set and solve the puzzles, as well as even talking about how the kittens might be feeling (Scamper is excited to find Sneaker, Sneaker wants Scamper to take her to the slide). I was surprised that my eldest liked this as much as she did; I’m not saying that I would suggest it as an ideal present for a 10-year-old but I think it shows just what a good concept it is that she liked it as much as her younger sister did!
The Coding Critters would make a superb Christmas present for anyone who likes to choose gifts that have a bit of an educational edge, even though the kids will definitely just see this as a super good fun toy! We loved it, and at around £40, I think its great value and will provide a lot of fun for a very long time.
For more information or to buy visit www.learningresources.co.uk.