Coding for preschoolers: Tech toys abound at N.Y. toy fair

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In this Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, photo, Codapillars from Fisher-Price, are displayed at Toy Fair in New York. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK — From a preschool toy designed to teach pre-coding skills to a hands-on molecule-building set for older kids that works with an app, technology abounded at this year’s Toy Fair.

The annual showcase of upcoming toys held recently in New York included a slew of tech-related products from the titans of the toy industry and tiny startups, all looking to attract increasingly tech-savvy kids.

Here are the highlights. Some of the toys are educational, while others are just kind of cool. All of them are set to go on sale this fall unless otherwise specified.

CODE-A-PILLAR (Fisher-Price, $50)

Even preschoolers can learn the basics of coding. That’s the idea behind this toy, which is aimed at kids ages 3 to 6.

The Code-a-Pillar is made up of different colored sections connected by USB plugs. The sections perform different commands such as go straight, turn right or make various sound effects.

Kids “program” the toy by connecting the various sections in a particular order. While the toy doesn’t teach an actual coding language, it does try to impart some of the same critical thinking and problem solving skills that coding does.

A starter kit includes eight sections, but expansion packs featuring additional commands will be sold separately.

THINGMAKER 3D PRINTER (Mattel, $300)

Created through a partnership with Autodesk Inc., a 3D design software company, kids use an app to design items such as action figures and jewelry.

They can choose the colors and shapes they want, then send their design to the ThingMaker to print. The app shows them what their finished product will look like and also gives an estimated print time.

The ThingMaker hits stores this fall, but can be preordered through Amazon. Pricing for the spools of plastic used in the printer has yet to be determined.

HAPPY ATOMS AND CODEGAMER SCIENCE KITS (Thames & Kosmos, $150 for CodeGamer)

These kits teach science by combining hands-on and app-based activities.

Happy Atoms, for kids ages 8 and up, involves building molecules with wooden atoms that connect with magnets. The atoms become “happy” when they pick up the appropriate number of electrons through the formation of molecules. The molecules can then be scanned into the app, which gives the kids information about the substance they just made.

Pricing for Happy Atoms has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, CodeGamer, ages 10 and up, connects physical and digital play to teach coding skills. Kids solve video game puzzles by both programing the game on a tablet and by physically modifying a Bluetooth-connected controller.

MAKERBLOKS ($200)

These circuit builder sets are specifically designed for young children. The blocks, which look a lot like dominos, connect with magnets and are easy for little hands to manipulate.

The company offers three sets of 26 blocks, each with a separate theme: music, circuitry and spy. There’s a tablet app to go with each set, which tells a story, prompting the kids to build certain kinds of circuits.

MakerBloks, designed for kids 6 and up, launches this summer and will be sold through the company’s website, though talks with retailers are under way.

AIR HOGS CONNECT: MISSION DRONE (Spin Master, $150)

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