Now's the perfect time to buy your kids/nieces/cousins some robots. Robots are a great way to get children excited about computers. Robots get them stoked in a way that a simple Hello World console app just can't.
If you're not careful you can spent hundreds on robots. However, I'm notoriously frugal and I believe that you can build some amazing stuff with children with a reasonable budget.
Here's some of the robot and electronics kits I recommend and have built with my kids.
This is just a teaser but it's less than a trip to the movies. This silly little kit takes 2 AAA batteries and will take an aluminum can and animate it. It gets kids thinking about using found objects in their robots, as opposed to them thinking custom equipment is always required.
One of the challenges is "what age should I start?" and "how complex of a robot can my __ year old handle?" Kits like this are nice because they are starting with batteries and gears and include two levels of building, basic and experienced. It's also a nice kit because it includes solar power as an option and also can work in water (the bath).
This isn't a kit but it's a reasonably priced robotic arm to get kids thinking in terms of command and control and multiple dimensions. OWI also has a cool 3in1 robot RC kit if you prefer driving robots around and more "rebuildability."
This Christmas my 7 year old and I built a Mirobot. You can get pre-soldered and solder-yourself kits. We got the main Mirobot Kit PLUS the Addons Kit which includes clever additional modules for Line Following, Sound, and Collision Detection.
The whole Mirobot execution is brilliant. The hardware and software are all open source, so if you want to acquire the parts and make it yourself you can. You can get kits in various levels of preassembly.
The creator is also building an Apps Platform so you can control the Mirobot from other apps within your browser and websocket your way over to the robot.
It took us about a weekend to build and you can see in the pic below that my 7 year old was able to install a pen and get the bot to draw a stickman. He was THRILLED.
This isn't the Intel Edison, although you can make some great robots with it as well. No, this is Edison, a little LEGO compatible robot from the makers of Microbric, a great robot platform from a few years ago. I actually made a Microbric robot in 2007 and blogged about it.
Edison is fantastic and just $50. If you're a teacher and can get a multiples pack, you can get them as cheap as $35 each. You program Edison with a clean drag and drop icon system then download the program to your robot with a cable from your computer's headphone jack.
Out of the box you can have it follow a flashlight/torch, follow lines on paper, fight each other in a sumo ring, avoid walls, and lots more. In this picture there's two Edison's stacked on each other. The top one has the wheels removed and replaced with Lego elements to make robot arms.
OK, yes, LEGO Mindstorms are $350, so that's not exactly frugal. BUT, I've seen parents buy $500 iPads without a thought, why not consider a more tactile and engineering-focused gift for a girl or boy?
This is THE flagship. It's got Wifi, Bluetooth, color sensors, iPad apps, collision detection, motors galore and unlimited replayability. There's also a huge online community dedicated to taking Mindstorms to the next level. If you can swing it, it's worth the money and appropriate for anyone from 6 to 60.
I couldn't love Snap Circuits more. I started with the Jr. Snap Circuits and we eventually graduated to Snap Circuits Pro. They are my #1 go-to gift idea for kids of friends and relatives.
While this isn't a robotics kit, per se, it really builds the basic understanding of batteries, electronics, and motors that kids will need to move to the next level.
What robot kids do YOU recommend?