Lego Mindstorms or something better for my nieces/nephews?
November 11, 2014 6:47 AM   Subscribe

I have six nieces and nephews ranging in age from 4 to 9 spread over two households, and I am thinking of getting each household a set of Lego Mindstorms for Christmas. The cost of the sets means I would not get them any other presents, so the kids would need to share.

The eldest boy (7) is very interested in engineering and often says he intends to 'start a company' as soon as he's old enough. He loves hearing stories of Elon Musk and Tesla and people like that. The eldest girl (9) is very clever and reads a lot but she has not been super-interested in programming and engineering to this point. I would love to give her a little nudge in that direction to see if her interest ignites. The other kids are maybe too young to have fixed interests yet, and we have more fun running around the garden.

My questions are:

(1) I am not a parent. Am I creating a tough situation by getting a toy that is suitable for the older kids but not so much for the younger ones? They usually share together pretty well.

(2) My main aim is to encourage the kids to explore science, technology and programming more deeply. Is there something that would be a better fit than Mindstorms?

Open to any other guidance also, particularly from people who have kids who have played with Mindstorms.

Thanks all!
posted by StephenF to Technology (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I would love to give her a little nudge in that direction to see if her interest ignites.

posted by DarlingBri at 6:52 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Parent of three here. All kids are different, of course, but any gift given to the three of them to share is asking for inevitable fights and tears. Especially at the ages that your nieces and nephews are, having their own things is very meaningful. You say they share together very well, and it may be that this wouldn't end in fights and tears, but if I'm in your situation, I would find lower-cost gifts and have one for each child. Maybe Erector sets instead, which seem considerably less expensive than Mindstorms?
posted by jbickers at 7:04 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Read the one and two-star reviews of Goldieblox products on Amazon -- there are a lot of issues.

I want to endorse Snap Circuits. I initially scoffed and said we'd use an old-school electronics kit, but I was wrong. Snap Circuits is so fun and easy it teaches a great deal about circuitry without the kid noticing any of the learning; my 7yo weighed in intelligently on a broken kitchen appliance I was trying to fix because of her Snap Circuits schooling. It's not the cheapest toy but you could get a really awesome set of sets for the price of Mindstorms. The simplest Snap Circuits circuits are suitable for a bright 5; the "Manufacturer recommended age" for Snap Circuits Extreme is 8-15 years.

(Also, one piece of our Snap Circuits broke in a really weird way {I have never seen a review mentioning this as an issue; I think it was total fluke rather than bad construction}, and I sent a photo and a note to the company. They sent a polite response quickly and mailed out a new piece, which made them even more of a RECOMMEND THIS COMPANY! thing for us.)
posted by kmennie at 7:04 AM on November 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think this is definitely a disaster waiting to happen. Asking 4 and 7 year olds to share a fancy toy is just asking for tears and possibly broken toy pieces. I definitely want to second the snap circuits recommendation, which is an excellent learning toy.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 7:10 AM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Am I creating a tough situation by getting a toy that is suitable for the older kids but not so much for the younger ones? They usually share together pretty well.

Possibly. Assuming the older kids takes to it, they may "hog" it. If the kids are that rare type where they all get along and cooperate, it could work out. The older kid could do the programming while the younger kids build the robots. I honestly don't see that happening, but I have an only child and I grew up in a dysfunctional family where something like that would not have worked.

My son got Mindstorms when he was about nine or ten. He built a few of the robots in the instructions, along with some stuff he found on-line. He never took to the programming though, which can be difficult (even though it's largely drag and drop) and the software, at least on a Mac, was occasionally buggy.

Building original designs with Mindstroms and Lego Technic can be very difficult. A lot of those sets are geared towards kids older than your nieces and nephews.

My main aim is to encourage the kids to explore science, technology and programming more deeply. Is there something that would be a better fit than Mindstorms?

More than the Mindstorms, my son really took to K'Nex. They make some roller coaster and ball machine sets that can satisfy that curiosity.

If the kids follow "traditional" gender roles the girl might be upset that you got them a "boy's" gift, but if they're not like that something like this might go over well. This could be the nudge the girl needs.

How about a couple of RC quadcopters? They've come a long way and you could get a couple of them for way less than the cost of Mindstorms.
posted by bondcliff at 7:10 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

LEGO Mindstorm seems geared to young teenagers (12-14). The programming language is somewhat obscure.

Rather than Mindstorm perhaps one of the other mechanical LEGO sets that does not require programming is a good idea.

That said I agree with other responders that assuming kids will share a toy such as this is pretty much a non-starter.
posted by dfriedman at 7:13 AM on November 11, 2014

I am not sure that mindstorms are the right gift for the age group, but as a parent, I think a gift that they can share is a super idea.

Do you live near them? Maybe you could take them all to a local science museum for an afternoon? Or perhaps buy them this book (also to share): The Way to Go: Moving by Sea, Land, and Air.
posted by jazh at 7:20 AM on November 11, 2014

Roominate building sets are fun - and geared toward the younger kids.

They're marketed for girls, but the "pinkness factor" isn't excessive and my 8-year-old son plays with them just as much.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:25 AM on November 11, 2014

It's certainly a very powerful toy and priced like it at $350. My fear would be that they would build the model in the instructions and never touch it again.
posted by smackfu at 7:27 AM on November 11, 2014

Best answer: LittleBits are a good alternative to Snap Circuits. They've been easier for my youngest, who is 7 now, to work with—they can't be put together wrong, so a kid just messing around with them won't destroy any parts by creating short circuits (as my oldest did many years ago). That said, we did have a lot of fun with our Snap Circuits as well.

My oldest is 13 now and loves Mindstorms. I first got a set for him when he was 7 or 8, and even though he was very interested, it was a bit young. For younger kids, Lego WeDo is an option. We've enjoyed ours. It doesn't have the infinite staying power of Mindstorms, which interested kids can keep doing cool things with until they're interested old people, but it's aimed at younger kids and is a lot of fun for them. I wrote a review of it for my blog a couple years ago.

Moss Robotics is a snap-together-with magnets robotics set that doesn't require any programming; functions are built into the pieces. It is not as robust as Mindstorms but it is a bit easier to get started with. By "not as robust" I mean the robots don't hold together as well. I also wrote a review of this for my blog! My oldest has enjoyed the set despite its drawbacks.

In my experience, Mindstorms is pretty much the gold standard for robotics sets. The challenges with your plan will be that the kids may be too young for now, and it will turn into a project the parents have to take on, and as, someone mentioned up-thread, sharing. The robots are really cool! Everyone will want to get their hands on them. We've had conflicts around this at our house. We have found that we like having extra "brains," which I've gotten used on eBay, so that we can build a new robot without taking apart the last one, or so that two kids can both be building robots. I've built our collection by keeping an eye on eBay for good deals on Mindstorms 2.0 (the previous generation before Ev3).

Other options for your engineering-loving 7-year-old might include DaVinci models, bridges, or other kits from this place.

One of the building toys (besides Lego) that has had the longest staying power for us have been Kapla blocks (another brand is Keva). These planks are fun for young kids, and older kids who are into building can make extraordinary things: towers, ships, castles, elaborate patterns. They're a terrific non-gendered toy for giving kids an opportunity to build, and kids who aren't into building per se can incorporate them into other play as roads, fences, walls, and so on. Ours are about the best toy investment we've ever made.

Papercraft might be a good option for a builder, too. Rob Ives is the gold standard for papercraft that moves via gears, cams, and so on, though the cutting, folding, and gluing is fiddly work and would probably be too much for kids as young as your niblings. Our kids have really loved the book Papertoy Monsters. The pieces are pre-cut so just need to be separated from the pages, folded, and glued. But they don't move.
posted by not that girl at 7:31 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You can get 3 Lego WeDo kits for the price of one Mindstorms and in my opinion (STEM Educator) WeDo is much more suitable for under-9s. I have spoken to many parents who have bought Mindstorms kits which once they have built the 4 standard models have been left in the cupboard and forgotten about. Some have never even gotten to the programming (which is not particularly intuitive). This is annoying, because Mindstorms is just brilliant for older kids and teenagers, but if they have had a bad/boring/frustrating experience with it when younger, they will dismiss it when older and miss out on a lot of stuff.

The secret about WeDo is that you don't even need to buy the Lego software, as WeDo links up with Scratch, which is not only free but absolutely the current gold-standard in teaching computing programming to kids.
posted by atlantica at 7:49 AM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am coaching a team of 6th/7th grade girls who are creating and programming Mindstorm EV3 robots for the FIRST LEGO League robot competition. Based on my experience, I'd say the only way the Mindstorm set would work for your group of nieces and nephews is if they had a motivated and dedicated adult around to hold their hands as they figure out the robot mechanics and the programming language and work through the design issues they're bound to encounter. There's a definite learning curve with the software, and even as a tech-inclined adult I find it occasionally frustrating and bewildering. In other words, I don't this would be a great gift to just hand over to them and hope they can each find a way to use it constructively at their own level.
posted by BurntHombre at 7:50 AM on November 11, 2014

Response by poster: Great thanks guys, advice much appreciated. I am going to explore some of the alternatives recommended above instead.
posted by StephenF at 7:58 AM on November 11, 2014

I volunteer with various FIRST Robotics programs -- mostly with high school age kids, but I do have some experience volunteering with the younger kids' programs, too. FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams are allowed to use Mindstorms kits or NXT kits, and the age range is 9-14. I've done technical judging (involving code reviews) for FLL teams and each team of kids is different.

I am not a parent, so my only experience with this is with organized teams of 2-10 children in the 9-14 age group working toward programming their robot to accomplish a set of common goals under the guidance of one or two dedicated adult mentors. Often, when the mentors are not as dedicated, I see the kids floundering without direction.
Further, I am an only child, so I don't have experience with siblings trying to share toys -- but with what I've heard about sibling rivalries I do not think this is a great idea.

I don't have any experience with Jr. FLL (age range 6-9), so I'm not sure what they use. They may indeed use the Mindstorms kits. Perhaps find out what kit they use and buy that for now. The 9 year old is probably getting a little too old for that, and that can be an issue.

Most FLL teams use the NXT kits nowadays, as they can use a greater variety of programming languages that are more easily accessible. I'm seeing Mindstorms teams less and less. In fact, at the 2014 Maryland State FLL Championship (where I was a technical judge) I don't think I say ANY Mindstorms teams.

I guess what I'm trying to say is it would be a better idea if you know these kids are good at sharing, and their parents would be helpful and encouraging with the robotics kit. If they DO get interested in programming/engineering and want to go into FLL then they might be better served learning the NXT, though I think it's even pricier.
posted by tckma at 8:55 AM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

tckma, you may be thinking of VEX(?) as NXT is Mindstorms, just the second version (rather than EV3, the current, 3rd version).
posted by atlantica at 9:22 AM on November 11, 2014

You might look into the board game Robot Turtles, especially for the younger half. It teaches fundamental programming concepts. I have it and plan to play it with my 5-year old, but haven't done so yet.
posted by sapere aude at 9:45 AM on November 11, 2014

I just read about the Nick and Tesla series, and it sounds like something the older kids, particularly the 9-year-old girl, would enjoy. The books are adventures stories about a boy and girl who make gadgets and inventions to help them solve their problems and outwit the adults; each story contains blueprints and instructions for 5 different projects.
posted by mogget at 2:31 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you want something in the same vein as Mindstorms, I recommend Little Bits. Same idea, I think* it's aimed a little bit younger audience, either way it's definitely a little more up front engineery and definitely cheaper.

*I am horrible at kids and age appropriateness.
posted by KernalM at 4:03 PM on November 11, 2014

i came here to endorse Arduino. Arduino are cheap and a great introduction to electronics on real projects along with a great community for support. Looking at a simple led light up is very easy to setup and from a child's view point is fascinating, (hell, its fascinating as an adult).
Many places offer introduction kits like Sparkfun,Adafruit and Makerzine to name a few.

Lego mind-storms are great to play with but expensive as you have seen. The programming language is basic but teaches the fundamentals of programming (loops, variables etc).
posted by radsqd at 11:04 AM on November 12, 2014

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