“The Botley coding robot can be an excellent and affordable way to bring some of that STEM robot learning to your youngest ones. Its screen-free and intuitive remote-control based system makes getting started coding a breeze, even for very young kids, and with a little creativity its activities can be scaled up to include more advanced coding and STEM concepts.“
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In today’s ever-changing high tech world a solid grasp of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and comfort with coding is becoming more important than ever. So important, in fact, that governments around the world are making huge investments in STEM education at the preschool and kindergarten levels.
To help foster critical strategic thinking and logical problem solving skills in younger kids, Learning Resources has developed the Botley robot. Botley is designed to be a screen-free coding robot that can teach kids 5 and up valuable programming and critical thinking skills.
But, let’s face it, getting a 5 year old into coding and robotics is a tall order. To find out whether this kindergarten coding robot is worth your money or not, we decided to check it out and see for ourselves.
What is Botley the Coding Robot?
Coming in at about 3 lbs and sized to fit in an adult palm, Botley is a small, friendly looking robot and can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks.
Botley comes pre-assembled, there’s no real assembly to do, which some people like. We have mixed feelings about it because while pre-assembly makes it easier for kids to get started coding (they do get impatient waiting for their robot buddies to be built), they don’t get the same experiences of building their own robots and getting to see and handle the electronics.
That said, From the moment you unpack this robot it’s clear that it’s designed to be accessible for younger kids. It’s very simple boxy shape is brightly colored and the front-facing sensors are designed to look like big, happy eyes that can flash and light up on command.
But don’t let its simple looks fool you, this is no toy pet. Botley is a fully functional educational platform designed to teach robotics for kindergarten aged kids and up. It has a suite of built in sensors including light, line detection and object detection sensors that help it perform relatively complex tasks and navigate around your house smoothly – it’s capable of moving in 6 directions, 45 degree and 90 degree turns.
Unlike many other robot kits out there, Botley is a screen-free coding robot. That means instead of using your phone or tablet to tell it what to do, kids can input a series of actions (codes) sequentially through the robot’s included remote control.
So if you’re a house with stricter limitations on screen time, or are already filling your daily screen limits up with other educational apps, this coding robot should fit nicely into your life.
How does Botley work?
Botley is a pretty straightforward coding robot. You plug in the series of steps you want it to take and it will follow up to 150 steps sequentially (meaning it goes through the code step by step, one series of actions after the other).
Botley has essentially two modes: line following and coding, and kids can switch freely between the two.
Literally – there’s a physical switch marked “line” and “code” on it, which really simplifies things for kids.
Botley has sensors that can detect lines and will follow them in line mode. The kit comes with an assortment of puzzle pieces with black lines on them that you can use, but more interestingly Botley can actually follow lines you draw, so you can draw your own custom tracks if you want.
It’s important to know that when line following, Botley can’t be programmed – it does so on its own and does so pretty well overall. You can set different paths and courses for it to follow, and it can make for a pretty good demonstration on how line following and infrared detection works.
Be aware, however, that the contrast needs to be high enough for the robot to see (black lines on white cardboard is best we found), and Botley has a bit of trouble with thinner lines so use nice and thick black permanent markers.
Coding with Botley is programming at its simplest and most accessible. You use the included remote control to give Botley a series of commands to execute one after the other. The remote has a number of arrows and buttons, including directional arrows, object detection (sort of looks like a wifi signal), loop, clear, sound (makes a beep) and clear (to delete the code if you want to reset or have made a mistake).
Botley 2.0 can remember 150 steps (as opposed to the older models that remembered 80), and remembers the steps you’ve programmed in before unless you actively delete them.
This means you can actually set up some fairly sophisticated coded actions and keep adding new and different actions that the robot will follow sequentially.
For example, you can code Botley to move 4 steps forward, and 1 turn right. You can then later program it to go 1 forward, make another 1 turn right and move 4 steps forward and flash its lights. The end result will be that Botley now does a nice U-turn and flashes its lights at you.
Where the coding gets a little annoying for us is, because it is sequential code, if you mess up by mistake you have to press the little trash and start the sequence again. To be fair, when using the trash can there is a short press and long press, with the short press deleting the last sequence of code and the long press clearing the entire robot memory. With all the confusion and excitement of working with this little robot you can easily forget where you made the mistake and have to clear the whole memory.
Sadly this is the compromise of having a screen-free robot. The lack of screen means you can’t go into the middle of the code and simply make a correction.
Another issue that people seem to have is that, because the remote transmits code via infrared, large objects that get in between you and the robot (a couch for example) can block the code from getting through. So make sure you have a clear line of sight when working with it.
To help kids visualize their coding, since keeping a bunch of steps in your head is kind of hard, Botley comes with 40 coding cards.
These are really visual aids with drawings of each possible code you can input, such as directional arrows, loop, collision direction, light and more. Each card is color coded to correspond to the relevant button on the remote, which really helps kids who confuse left and right or still have a hard time reading arrow directions.
The overall idea of these cards is pretty simple and effective – they help get kids planning and thinking strategically about what they want their robot to do before inputting their instructions. Because there is no screen interface to use with Botley, and because it does have a fair-sized memory, they’re also a great way of keeping track of your code and its sequence.
Finally, Botley includes a little activity guide with 10 coding challenges that you can try out. These steadily increase in difficulty and, aside from having some fun ideas for activities, they are also a way to help the kids get used to the robot, as well as learn some basic commands and programming concepts.
The company also offers free instructions and guides to download, with ideas to try out and some classroom activities designed around STEM learning.
Botley’s Secret Codes
At the back of the Botley manual are 16 “secret” codes that you can input into Botley to make it do some neat tricks to entertain your kids. You plug in the codes and it changes Botley’s “personality.” You can, for example, turn Botley into a police car, a train, a dinosaur or even a ghost where it lights up.
There are also some secret codes that you can find that will, for example, make Botley say its name, cheer, and start beeping when it reverses.
These are kind of a fun afterthought, not hugely educational, but our kids seemed to love them and it kept them engaged with the robot.
Obviously there are accessories that are designed to extend your kids interest in Botley and therefore its effective lifespan.
The Coding Robot Crashin’ Construction Accessory Set – With a number of add ons to help turn Botley into various construction vehicles. It comes with six STEM activities and challenges
The Coding Robot Action Challenge Accessory Set – This set allows you to build a obstacle course/play area for botley, with dominos and swinging hammers and the like for the robot to navigate through with more advanced coding instructions.
What can my kids learn out of this?
With most younger kids and coding the goal isn’t so much to teach them a coding language per se, rather the idea is to get them started with the logical thinking and step by step nature of coding.
In that regard, we think Botley does a really good job.
Kids learn how robots follow code in order to function, including concepts like loops and object detection, which is the very foundation of robotics. Because of the relative flexibility of the robot, it encourages creativity in coming up with different robot activities and critical thinking to figure out how to get it done properly.
As your kids become more familiar with the robot and its code you can work creatively to introduce even more advanced coding concepts, such as loops and object detection.
Loops are an important idea in programming. They allow a program to repeat sequences without having to put in all the steps over and over again. Botley has a little loop button that when pressed will tell the robot to repeat the steps you have pressed. As kids learn to use loop commands, they will learn to make their code shorter and more efficient (which also reduces frustration).
Object Detection is a critical idea in robotics, where you tell a robot what to do if it suddenly comes across something in its path (think of your car automatically braking to prevent a collision).
Unlike earlier versions of Botley, Botley 2.0 has object detection sensors built into it that you can program with the remote to give Botley a series of steps telling it what to do in case it detects an object in its path. In essence this gives Botley the ability to introduce what’s called If/Then conditional logic, for example if Botley runs into an object along it’s path, then it must turn around and go back.
In fact, using some of these ideas we were able to create a simple unless” statement, for example, by telling botley to move in a square, then telling it that if an object is in its path to turn around and go back (move in square unless object detection activated else return).
Simple but there is potential for powerful concepts to be learned.
We also think the robot’s visual cards act as a powerful visual aid for your programming, we think it can really help with developing sequential thinking in younger kids. With a little guidance, kids use them to picture what they want the robot to do before inputting code. When things go wrong, they can easily “debug” their code by rearranging the tiles and then trying again to learn what went wrong.
Our kids picked up how to do this very quickly and they found it to be very exciting and a great confidence builder.
With all that said, there are some limitations to this robot in terms of education. For one thing, there is no ability to move on to more advanced, but still young child friendly, coding methods like Scratch. While it makes the experience screen free, we think it would open Botley up to more advanced challenges and extend its educational value quite a bit for older kids.
Another issue for some parents may be that while Botley is cute and the activities are fun, this is not a companion robot, but an educational one, so it doesn’t beep, flash and squeak as much as some more advanced robot kits. Keeping very young kids interested in it may therefore require a bit more parental involvement.
Online Lesson Plans
In addition to the above, Learning Resources also provides a number of free online classroom lesson plans that you can download, print and use to improve your Botley learning experience. These are designed to integrate the robots coding with other STEM concepts for kids.
Botley is less expensive than other robot kits out there, priced at just under $85.
While it may not have as many sensors and capabilities as some other robots out there, hence the lower price, keep in mind it is designed with less complexity so that younger children to engage with it.
And for your money do you get a full robot kit, including:
- Botley itself and its controller
- Detachable Robot Arms
- 40 Visual Coding Cards
- 6 line tracing tiles
- 27 Obstacle Pieces
- Coding challenges
Overall, therefore, we think Botley is pretty reasonably priced for a beginners robot that will (hopefully) be the first step in your child’s journey of STEM exploration.
What age is the Botley Robot appropriate for?
The company states that Botkey is designed for kids 5+, that is kindergarten aged kids and higher.
To be honest, our overall sense is that kids younger than that can still get a lot out of Botley. Of course, each child is different, but there are no small parts to be worried about and the programming is simple enough to teach that we feel even a 4 year old can benefit.
Parental involvement is still necessary, especially at first. The manual is detailed but can be a bit overly technical, it is clearly written for a parent to read first and then teach later.
The Botley robot takes 5 AAA batteries, 3 for the robot and 2 for the remote.
If you’re a parent of a child who likes electronic toys, then you know this song and dance – Botley needs batteries to work and they don’t come included. So come prepared if you’re buying this as a surprise – the last thing you need is to unwrap it and then scramble around ripping TV remotes apart trying to find batteries for it.
With so many batteries we wonder if a rechargeable lithium ion for at least the robot wouldn’t have been easier for parents and less wasteful overall.
With all that said, AAA batteries are pretty common and inexpensive to find and, to its credit, Botley did last well over 6 hours of straight testing without even so much as a low battery beep.
How durable is Botley?
Botley the coding robot is made of hard plastic and seemed to us to be fairly durable and well put together. It stood up to all the bumps, knocks, crashes and drops that our kids put it through. Its weakest points are obviously at the wheel joints but Botley is so compact that we doubt anything will really get in there to break them.
The Botley coding robot can be an excellent and affordable way to bring some of that STEM robot learning to your youngest ones. Its screen-free and intuitive remote-control based system makes getting started coding a breeze, even for very young kids, and with a little creativity its activities can be scaled up to include more advanced coding and STEM concepts. While it is a bit limited in that it can’t use more block coding languages like Scratch, it ultimately is one of the more approachable and easy to use robots that we think will delight and inspire your kids.
About the Author
David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.