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STEAM Gift Ideas


Secret Codes

Scientific Explorer Secret Codes Decoder Kit

This kit has fun tools such as invisible ink, while also containing info cards about some ciphers and codes, including Pigpen (which we covered in an earlier issue).

Secret Decoder Deluxe Activity Set – ON the GO

A little less focused on established codes, but has three workbooks which kids can worth through and crack the mystery as they go!

Telegraph Kit – The Science Cube

We covered Morse Code in an earlier issue, so why not let the kids make their own machine? Definitely a cool gift idea for anyone who wants something physical to engineer.

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing

This takes a slight turn away from the ‘fun kits’ without the tools and toys, but it does cover a lot of the codes used throughout history, and gives some test codes to break.

Cracking Codes with Python

This book combines two fun experiences, Python which is easy to code and secret codes. All kinds of ciphers are covered with details about how to use Python to break the ciphers. Could be a fun engrossing source book for someone interested in solving puzzles with code.


Books can be a fun way to learn about computer science and programming. Also it’s fun for kids to work with parents on projects. Most programmers use books to look up code snippets and confirm how a language works. Here are a number of programming and computer science books that make great ideas for holiday gifts.

Lauren Ipsum

No Starch Press re-issued a wonderful book, Lauren Ipsum, which explains computer science concepts in a fun and often wacky way similar to Alice in Wonderland. Teachers, parents, and kids will have to stop and re-read the text to realize they’ve learned a key concept used in computer science and computing.

The Big Book of Maker Space Projects

A shiny new book written by two school librarians who love hands-on, low-cost projects for all ages. Projects are classroom tested. They include wishlists on their book site to make it easy to find what you need. Recyclable hacks, e-textiles, musical instruments, paper and sewing circuits, much more.

Python Tricks

Know someone who has learned a little Python, loves the language, but can’t figure out how to extend their knowledge in practical fun ways? This book provides lots of code snippets and insights into the Python language in a constructive DIY way. It’s not a beginners book. But it does help Python coders dive deep into the language with easy to understand and recreate projects.

Scratch Coding Cards

While not technically a book, this set of 75 cards has a number of projects, from beginner to advanced, that teach all parts of Scratch. Ages 8+

Lift-the-Flap Computers and Coding

Over 100 flaps to learn how computers and programming works. Great for all ages (because most people don’t know much about computers).

So You Want to be a Coder?

There are lots of ways to learn software programming languages and computer science. This book is about the other part of software programming: What do they do all day? What skills do
programmers use and need to know? Link is to a review we did with book links and more.


You can learn a little software programming and have lots of fun with any number of coding apps available for your phone or tablet computer. Plus there are websites like Tynker where you can build games. And there’s also a fun service, Bitsbox, that delivers every month a bunch of games you can code and play.

Here are a few ideas to investigate. There are many more at the link at the top of this article.

Bitsbox (featured)

Kids learn to code by making games on the Bitsbox.com website then play them on their phone or tablet. The games are quite clever with fun bright graphics. And it’s easy for kids to adapt the code once they figure out the game, to learn and become comfortable with code. A new box of games arrives each month.. Ages 5 and up.


If you are self-sufficient, don’t mind looking up help, and like to take things apart, Codea is an iPad app to create games. You can adapt existing code or create from scratch. The app has lots of game functionality with few limits on what you can create. Ages 10+.


This iPhone and iPad app uses blocks you drag and drop to create effects. Blocks are customized to do different things. It has a strong community of kids who often come up with creative ways to make games and have fun. Ages 5+


Many US kids are familiar with Tynker in their classrooms because it was developed with the help of teachers and school districts, to meet their curriculum standards. Similar to Scratch and Hopscotch, Tynker is a block language where you drag and drop blocks then configure the blocks to do things. The main virtue of block languages apply here: it’s easy and fun to move blocks around, find sprite images, and make the blocks do things. Ages 5+

Move the Turtle

Geared towards little kids, you move a turtle around the screen by setting direction and the number of steps to create artwork and solve problems. With a little help to get started, most kids will figure it out. The game teaches basic coding ideas and sets them up nicely for block languages like Scratch, Hopscotch, and Tynker.

Coding is Good, Swiftie, Touch Lua, Python 3.4

For kids ready to code, there are apps that let you learn how to code with Swift (Swiftie), Lua (Touch Lua), and Python (Python for iOS and Coding is Good). SoloLearn has a number of apps and languages. Look them up in the App Store and Google Play. Another great option? Find Python projects in books or online then try them out with the Repl.it website.

Run Marco!

A coding adventure game, in English plus 26 other languages. Kids use conditional logic and critical thinking skills to help Marco get through his adventures.

The Foos

This iPhone and iPad app helps kids ages 5-10+ work through levels where they can play and learn basic programming and computer science skills.

Electronic Kits

Today electronic kits often don’t require soldering and other semi-risky skills. Kids and adults can snap together kits then tinker with hardware and software. It’s great hands on fun, as well as a way to learn more in depth how computers work. Kits range in complexity from snap together to basic boards with lots of online tutorials. They make fun holiday gifts for older kids who have patience and persistence. Or adults with those skills.

Labo by Nintendo

While not electronic, Labo is a game and construction toy created by Nintendo to use their Switch video game console. If you have a Switch console, Labo lets you create all kinds of neat projects and things from cardboard and your console.


Follow real engineering blueprints to build your own computer then use Pipercraft, a Minecraft mod, to configure it. You also can build gadgets with electronic boards. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, apparently loves Piper. Includes wood case.


This is a very simple snap together computer kit. The brains are powered by a Raspberry Pi and Kano includes an excellent operating system designed for kids. Also includes an online community to share ideas.


An unusual but really neat idea for kids who want to create friendship bracelets with functionality they can code.

Tech Will Save Us

Educational tech toys that are kits kids can build to mix building, craft, science, tech, coding, and fun. Their Mover Kit is like a DIY Jewelbots.


They sell their Crumble board with robot kits with motors, LEDs, and sensors.All programmable with a Scratch-like drag and drop language.

Little Robot Friends

These cute little robots respond to light, touch, voice, and infrared inputs. They also blink, beep, and buzz. Plus coding.


Easy snap together electronic pieces make a large number of different kits make it fun to invent things.


A monthly STEM project arrives in the mail with materials, blueprints, and more ideas to learn and have fun.

Snap Circuits

A collection of snap together circuit projects to teach kids the basics of electronics. Includes a kit with coding projects.

STEAM Board Games

Some of the best ways to learn about programming are through board and card games. You don’t need electricity or a computer. Here are fun games for little kids, bigger kids, and families. Playing these games as a family with younger kids also can help them more quickly understand the games, more than if they were to play the games by themselves.

Also look up chess, Go, Backgammon, and other traditional games which are fun to play and teach problem solving and strategy skills.

Turing Tumble

While not really a board game, it is a hands on game that uses the original idea of computers as switches to teach the basics ideas behind computing and programming.

Robot Turtles

Robot Turtles is a great board game with some neat extensions like an online community where you can create your own game boards. These games sometimes let you replace the object you direct in the game with a person like your child, or a parent, adding another level of fun and engagement.

Code Monkey Island

This board game is full of programming, mysteries, and fun for kids ages 8 and older. If played as a family, it’s likely younger kids will understand the game and have fun, too. Use cards to move a monkey around the island as kids learn strategic thinking, logic, and how to adapt.

Code Master

This single player game, from the makers of Robot Turtles, has 60 levels you work through to learn programming logic. Only one path leads to the crystal and wins the game.

Bits and Bytes

Bits & Bytes is a fun card game to teach kids basic computing skills: logic, problem solving, and critical thinking. The game is absorbing and flexible. No need for a computer.


This deceptively simple card game for kids 4-8 lets them lay out a series of steps for their siblings and parents to follow. When they master the basic game, you can add more advanced cards.

Notable Women in Computing Card Deck

A traditional card deck with the photo, name, and short biography of women who have contributed to technology instead of the usual royalty and pips for the number cards. They can be used to play Fish and other classic card games. The makers also offer a card with women from the Middle East and Africa, as well as posters for both cards. It’s also possible to download the poster and cards to print locally if you can’t pay $10 USD for cards or $25 USD for the posters.

Giggle Chips

A set of highly creative game cards created by a mom and her young doodling daughter that teach computer science concepts in a fun visual way.


Players make their way to a farmhouse, navigating their tractors past rushing streams and dangerous rocks, while recharging at windmills, and relaxing at rest stops. Game can be played with instructions in English or Java code.


Two-player card game for 10 years old on up. Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced cards let kids challenge each other in their knowledge of Python, an accessible programming language.

STEAM Robots

Robots are fun to build for many kids. These robots also can be programmed to move around rooms, perhaps through an obstacle course, as a fun way for kids to learn programming. They’re also fun for parents to try with their kids or for older kids to master on their own.

Sphero Bolt

The Bolt is the newest amazing robot ball from Sphero. It includes a digital display you can easily code, plus it works with other Sphero Bolts. Their robots are fun, easy to use, and offer a good path for kids (and adults) who want to evolve from drag and drop programming to actual coding. You’ll need a phone or tablet to connect to your Sphero and direct it.

Dash and Dot

These cute round robots from the Wonder Workshop are for kids elementary school age. Kids play with them to have fun and learn about technology. The Dash and Dot robots can be programmed with Blockly, a fairly easy language to master like Scratch. With Blockly you create a step, for example, play a sound, then define the sound as a lion roar. The combination of steps determines how the robot will move, when it will move, and what it will do.

LEGO Mindstorms

Take the LEGO idea — easy to snap together parts to build things — and add icon based programming, wheels, legs, and other mobile pieces and you have LEGO Mindstorms. While you can build simple robots, it’s more fun to build more complicated robots to do things and perform tasks. They can respond to touch and be controlled by a remote control. Mindstorms also includes an active online community with lots of ideas to try.


This robot requires no computer screens, only play. Program the Cubetto robot with touch, pressing down block shapes in order to tell the robot what to do, in what order, and when. You also don’t need to know English, or any language, to make the robot move. It’s a clever idea geared towards younger kids. However, adults might find it fun to figure out, as well.


This Fisher-Price toy is a learning toy in the shape of a caterpillar. Kids experiment as they develop problem solving, planning, and critical thinking skills. Change its segments to make the caterpillar go different places.


Two small robots, Evo and Bit, provide a deceptive amount of learning opportunities, creativity, and fun.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality kits vary only in quality of the experience, their ability to trick your eyes and ears into believing the digital world around you is the real world. For headsets connected to computers, virtual reality also requires the latest video cards and processors to stream data to the headset without interruption.

So where to begin if you want to try VR out? Google Cardboard is the least expensive way to try out virtual reality. All you need is their viewer and a phone to create a headset. More expensive headsets, of course, connect to smartphones, Playstation, computers, and other platforms. Vive, for example, has a headset that uses base stations to fix your position once connected to your computer.

If you choose one of the high end virtual reality kits, be aware of exclusive software, DRM (digital rights management), and other things that will limit your ability to try out software. For example, software built solely for one virtual reality platform means other platforms can’t use it. And open platforms can use software from anywhere as long as it conforms to basic standards.

Google Cardboard

For $20-$30 USD you can buy and fold together a cardboard headset, then slide in a modern smartphone and use VR apps. While not as immersive as the HTC Vive, the experience is as amazing as more expensive options.


While this is the most elaborate VR setup, the use of base stations to fix your position provides more space to move around. At the least, definitely find a Microsoft store with an HTC Vive setup and then try it out. It’s amazing!

You can also check it out here.

Playstation VR

The Playstation platform has added virtual reality to its games. You need the latest Playstation (the Playstation 4) but if yours is older or you don’t have one and you want to buy, the VR version of the platform could be lots of fun.

Samsung Gear VR

A combination headset with smartphone, like the Google Cardboard, the Samsung Gear VR headset experience is more immersive. A controller also adds to the experience.

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