Nintendo’s latest announcement that they’d be manufacturing DIY Switch peripherals that can be played along with mini-games was met with decidedly mixed reactions. Some parents are (understandably) thrilled at the idea of a fun project they can work on with their kids while others are (also understandably) skeptical about buying what is essentially a $70 piece of cardboard.
According to Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé, “Labo is unlike anything we’ve done before.” However, the idea of a physical build-and-play toy that interacts with electronics isn’t especially new. While Labo may be the first DIY initiative from a major video game company, app-enabled, buildable toys have been a staple of kid tech for a few years now.
Most of the build-and-play toys on the market were designed as a way to instill STEM skills without feeling boring and educational. Labo is just another toy in a long line of toys that might sneakily teach your kids engineering skills without them realizing it. Nintendo has the advantage of already being a beloved property for both kids and parents — other toy companies have developed partnerships with similarly kid-favorite brands like Minecraft and Star Wars to
trick encourage kids to learn about coding.
Here are 10 of our favorite build-and-play toys you don’t have to wait three months to buy:
Impressed by a cardboard piano? With Makey Makey you can make a piano out of bananas. Or Play-Doh. Or your dog. Makey Makey is a single board computer that essentially makes a controller out of anything by connecting it to the computer via alligator clips. Like Labo it’s a fun novelty that can spark creativity and an interest in STEM while your kids are playing video games.
LittleBits Droid Inventor Kit
LittleBits, an open-source electronics startup, worked with Disney and Lucasfilm on this adorable kit that teaches kids how to make a fully-functional R2-D2 (or get creative and make an original droid friend.) The pieces are totally customizable and can be rearranged as many times as you want. Artoo can accept mini-game “missions” from an app that also provides assembly instructions and controls.
This is definitely the kids toy I’m most tempted to buy for myself. Bloxels is kinda like a physical Super Mario Maker. It’s a video game development platform that uses a physical board to create a basic platformer game. You fit these colored blocks into a game board to design a level and then use the app to finalize it digitally. The classic kit is a great place to start, but obviously the Star Wars kit is the real draw here. Playing in story mode unlocks assets like backgrounds and characters to use in your game creation.
The Anki Overdrive kit is Hot Wheels meets Battle Bots with some A.I. thrown in for good measure. Just like any other racing kit, Anki comes with a track that your kids can rearrange depending on the type of stunts they’re trying to pull. That’s only half the fun, though. Kids can arm their cars in the Anki app with virtual weapons that they deploy against human or A.I. opponents. The game takes place both on the track and in the app. If your eight-year-old also happens to be a big Vin Diesel fan, of course there’s a Fast & Furious edition.
Piper and Kano
Both of these toys use Raspberry Pi computers to teach kids how to build and code electronics. The kits come with the various components and instructions needed to make a fully functioning computer that they can learn how to program. Piper uses Minecraft: Pi edition while Kano has their own coding challenges (including Minecraft.) Piper is a little more expensive and the controls are slightly different, but they’re essentially the same toy.
Lego Mindstorms and Lego Boost
The OG build-and-play toy got into the STEM game with Lego Mindstorms, a programmable Lego kit that can be assembled into five robot creations. It’s a little advanced for younger kids, so in 2017 they released the more beginner-friendly (and more affordable) Lego Boost, which included the programmable Vernie the Robot and Frankie the Cat. Once your kids put together their Lego friends, they can use the Lego Boost app to program the toys to do things like play music or flick their tail (in the case of Frankie.) Once they’re done with one model they can just destroy it and make another one.
Wonder Workshop CleverBots
Wonder Workshop makes these cute robots with distinct “personalities” that encourage creativity as they teach coding. The CleverBots are separated by age range and capabilities — Dot and Dash are for ages 6 and up while Cue is recommended for ages 11 and up. Each CleverBot comes with a suite of attachments (and many more can be bought separately) that it can be programmed to interact with, including Lego connectors to totally customize your Bot.
These little blocks were designed “to inspire kids to become better thinkers.” Each Cubelets block performs a different function that can be combined with other blocks to make a complicated machine. The blocks just snap together with magnets so your kids can experiment as much as they want to build their perfect robot creation. You can download Cubelets’ programming platform Blocky to learn how to program the blocks yourself. The starter kits come with six blocks, but you can upgrade to a 12- or 20-block kit and order one-off blocks to add to your collection.