NEWS$show=/search/label/news

Here's where you'll find all the latest news about technology for children. We love to follow cool new inventions on Kickstarter and we hunt out all the latest announcements about tech toys and gadgets for the coming Christmas holidays. You'll also get our take on children's technology stories in the media.

REVIEWS$show=/search/label/review

Our kids technology product reviews are intended to help you work out whether a toy, gadget or kit is a good fit for your child or family. There's lots of cool stuff available, but is it the right choice for the child or teenager that you are buying for? We'll help you make the right choices and get the best value for money.

GIFT GUIDES$show=/search/label/gift%20guide

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends assemble. We create gift lists to help you make good choices for kids technology which helps them develop the right skills for the future. We research the best in Coding Toys and Games, Making / Craft Tools and Kits, STEM/STEAM related gifts, Programmable Robots, Electronics Kits and Gadgets for Tech Age Kids and Teens.

PROJECTS$show=/search/label/project

Get crafty with technology. Here we'll post all our ideas and projects using technology to get creative and making with kids. You'll find anything from making a lemon battery to a glow-in-the-dark Minecraft sword. Our projects are tried and tested on our own kids or at events we run, so we are sure you can have a go at home with your kids. Some of our projects use specific tech gadgets which we provide links for you to purchase.

STEM$show=/search/label/stem

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In recent years there is an increased focus in these areas of study. We like to include Art and Design too, so we often talk about STEAM (A stands for Art). At Tech Age Kids we believe Coding is a new literacy and children need to understand how technology works, practice making skills and grow in their curiosity to make a better future for us all.

CODING$show=/search/label/coding

Coding is increasingly being recognised as an important skill for children to learn. Some will learn to code at school or at a coding club, but it's brilliant if they get support at home too.

ELECTRONICS$show=/search/label/electronics

We think it's really important for kids to get hands-on with electronics and learn how to make circuits and write code to control hardware. Younger kids can start with conductive playdough. For kids who like to combine craft and tech, littleBits are fab. And we love SAM Labs wireless electronics components for making it easy for kids to make Internet of Things inventions. Lots of electronics kits for kids have support for the Arduino microprocessor environment. The DuinoKit Jr is one of our favourites. Arduino is a fab skill for older kids and teens to develop.

ROBOTICS$show=/search/label/robotics

We love robots at Tech Age Kids, especially programmable ones. We've got lots of them and write reviews and projects that use them. Our programmable robots for kids buying guide is a good place to start if you're not sure what's available. Roby the mBot Meccano robot dog is one of our popular projects and has been with us to lots of events. Our Ozobot LEGO trailer is fab for kids who love LEGO and robots.

MAKING AND CRAFT$show=/search/label/making

We're advocates of the creative use of technology, but this needs to be balanced with developing physical skills such as papercraft, woodwork, clay modelling, technical drawing and soldering. If children don't develop these skills as they grow up then physical making projects can become frustrating rather than fun. The Maker Community uses the term 'making' as a broad term to include all sorts of artisan skills or craft activities. Being able to make things can lead to life-long hobbies or even careers. It's a great feeling to be able to take a project from an idea in your head to a real object that does something. We're particularly interested to explore products that combine maker skills with tech skills such as electronics but others focus purely on the physical making skills that are still important to modern making.

ArcBotics Sparki Arduino Robot Review


We've reviewed the ArcBotics Sparki, an educational robot packed with sensors which comes with lots of tutorial material. Sparki is very much an educational platform for learning about robotics and STEM rather than a toy with some coding added. Sparki can be used in schools and libraries but it can also be bought for home use if your child doesn't get to use one at school.

Sparki is aimed at children in middle school and high school. I tried out the ArcBotics Sparki robot with my two boys aged 8 and 9. They're a little younger that the target age range, but pretty experienced with robotics for their ages.

Disclosure: ArcBotics kindly sent us a Sparki robot to review. As always, our opinions are our own.


Unboxing (the bit where we actually care about the box)

My first reaction when I saw the Sparki box was wow that's a small package. ArcBotics have packaged Sparki in a box that is just the right size for the robot, not an enormous box that's supposed to impress you but is impossible to store. We like this! The assembled Sparki fits back into the box nearly along with its accessories so you can use the box for storage to keep all the parts together (so important with a robot like this.)


Power

Sparki needs 4 AA batteries as clearly explained in the Getting Started guide. You can use either regular alkalike batteries or rechargeable ones. It's always really annoying when robots say you can't use rechargeables so this is a great feature. 

You don't need a screwdriver or other tool to change the batteries which I appreciate. 

Sparki The Robot


Sparki is a white plastic robot with its electronics on show on the top. It has a gripper on the front which is an awesome feature and the first thing my kids noticed. They've been wanting a robot that can pick things up.

The motors are stepper motors which can be controlled much more precisely than the cheap motors you find on low cost robots. You get an RGB LED and a tone buzzer as outputs. There's also a LCD display screen which is quite unusual to find in a kids programmable robot and considerably extends the scope of projects that can be carried out. 

Sparki has distance sensor eyes mounted on a servo so that the 'head' can look around. The robot has multiple sensors for line following, light sensors, accelerometer and magentometer and also an IR sensor and receiver. You get a remote control too. 

That's a lot of electronics packed into a compact robot.


Using the Remote

Sparki comes pre-loaded with a program that allows you to control it with the included infra-red remote. That's probably what you want to start with. 

The remote control can be used to get Sparki to move around and to try out some of the features of the robot. 

Note that if you want to get back to remote control mode later then you'll need to reload the default program. 

The Software

There's lots of choice when it comes to software to control Sparki. The two most developed options are the miniBloq graphical programming tool and the Sparkduino environment which is based on Arduino.

miniBloq

We started with the miniBloq software. miniBloq offers graphical icon-based drag and drop coding with Arduino C++ code side-by-side. This software looks very dated and was often slow to respond to user activity.   

We started the online activities. I got stuck at the first hurdle when I couldn't see how to enter a number for the distance to move forward. My 9 year old poked at things until he worked out that the '#' option (buried in the interface) would give you a box to type in. There are much more intuitive ways to support this kind of interface.

Once we'd got the hang of the interface we worked through some of the early activities. My boys were desperate to be able to pick something up with the grabber and we were able to do this once they understood how the commands worked.

We really like that the education material explains how the gripper works internally. We managed to write the code to move forward pick up a soft ball, reverse and drop it. Success!


We got a bit stuck once our code was longer that a few commands as we didn't get a scroll bar. You can shrink the code but that only takes you so far. I had to go and search to find out that you can use Ctrl and the arrow keys to scroll around. Works well once you know.

The problems with miniBloq are mainly aesthetic or first time use issues. Once you learn its quirks it works pretty well. If you're using Sparki at home we'd recommend a parent working with the child for the early activities so they don't get disheartened - they'll soon be up and running. In an educational context it would be worth doing a walk-through on a whiteboard so kids can follow along for the first project.

There's also the option to use the graphical ArduBlock editor so we'll also be trying that too.

SparkiDuino

My kids still find graphical coding quicker although my 9 year old is starting to learn text-based coding. We did SparkiDuino and it worked well. It's great to know that the option is there when my kids are bigger and there's lots of tutorial material for Arudino too.

For now we had fun loading and trying out some of the sample programs. My 8 year old loved the Theramin style example. 

Note that Sparki can also be used with the Codebender online IDE. Coderbender is really convenient (we've been using it with the Adafruit Circuit Playground board) but you need an account to use it and have to be over 13.

(Aside: Codebender does have a new Codebender : blocks paid service for education.)

The Tutorials

Educational content is the thing that makes the difference between a robot that stays in a cupboard and one that kids stick with. A lot of effort has clearly gone into providing a curriculum for the Sparki robot. 

The Sparki lessons are freely available online so it's really easy to just point a browser at it. The content is clearly labelled with the tool it applies to and you can select which tools you want to see content for. We would have liked an easy way to bookmark a link to just the content for MiniBloq or just the content for SparkiDuino.

Highlights

  • We love the LCD display on Sparki. You often want to show output on your robot rather than having to check on a computer. 
  • The gripper is awesome! Picking things up is one of the main things my kids want to be able to do with a robot. The gripper solves this problem in a clever way which doesn't make the robot too expensive or complex. 
  • The accelerometer is another great feature, it gives you lots of options to do things with Sparki other than just driving around. 
  • Sparki can run off regular rechargeable AA batteries which keeps costs down and makes it easy to swap batteries rather than needing to stop and recharge in the middle of a session. 

Sparki in Action


Verdict


We like Sparki very much. It's a great choice for kids who are serious about robotics but don't want to focus on the mechanics of physically building robots. The tutorial material means that, with a little bit of help to get started, kids will really be able to learn a lot with this one compact robot. 

The LCD display gives kids the option to customize their robot without having to physically attach extra components. 

For high school children the SparkiDuino option works well and being able to use the Codebender editor online is even easier to get started with. 

We were less keen on the miniBloq editor, we'd like to see a modern Blockly based editor for younger roboteers. We'll try ArduBlock out in a future Sparki project.




Name

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Tech Age Kids | Technology for Children: ArcBotics Sparki Arduino Robot Review
ArcBotics Sparki Arduino Robot Review
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Tech Age Kids | Technology for Children
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