Lego Mindstorms for 3 year olds

DISCLAIMER: You should of course note the recommended ages for toys such as the Lego Mindstorms sets indicated in this article.

So I have a 3 and a half year old son … and as a very nerdy Dad, I am slightly obsessed with how technology  is introduced to him and what he’s allowed access to so far as computers and internet are concerned.  Rather than being the Dad that shoves an iPad in front of him, I am very hesitant to put any modern technology in front of him. In fact I deliberately don’t have an iPad because I don’t want to shove a tablet in front of him.

From my perspective, I grew up in an era when computers were more often used as creative tools rather than the modern world of  “yet another media consumption device”.

So having a young child, I was constantly searching for some ‘part’ of the modern computer world that captured just a little bit of that creative era I grew up in.

So I had a Lego Mindstorms NXT 1.0 set (8527) in the cupboard. It was a present many years ago … and even though I was really interested in robots as a kid, as an adult I never quite got into ‘Mindstorms’ so I hardly used it and it must have been in the cupboard for 5 or 6 years before I pulled it out. So I got the old NXT-G software installed on an OSX machine (and hey you can still get the old software to work on Mavericks surprisingly) and started to play with it. A key benefit of this old set is the wealth of information including project instructions and programs for it that is still available on the internet for it (and the very similar NXT 2.0 8547  set that followed). Sites such as contain a heap of projects for the 1.0 and 2.0 NXT sets.

So I know the recommended age for a Mindstorms set is quite a lot higher than ‘three’, but I am perpetually ambitious.

So this became my weekend ritual with my 3 yr old. The weekend has become “make robots” time (I’ve been doing this for almost 6 months now). Suffice to say he really enjoys helping to build robots with me. So we build something from instructions, I would load the program into the NXT-G software, then my son would know to plug the USB cable into the Lego ‘brick’ (I’ve specifically ignored the bluetooth capabilities), hit the download button, unplug the USB, then go try out the robot. There are some really cool things you can make from simple spinning tops, to biped humanoids, to forklifts to inch worms to scorpions. It’s all clever stuff, and what I like is that there is the hint of some basic engineering stuff in each  project and what it does.

Then I purchased a NXT 1.0 to 2.0 upgrade kit. There seemed to be a lot more books written for the NXT 2.0 set (8547) , and I am always keen to get my son ‘away from computers’. So I bought The Unofficial Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 Inventor’s Guide and The Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 Discovery Book. Both are excellent books … but are probably just now getting harder or impossible to buy brand new.

Probably the more interesting and pleasant offshoot of this social experiment is my son’s interest and understanding of ‘programming’. A unique feature of the NXT-G programming language is that it is very very graphical to the point where you don’t need a full grasp of written English to use it… which is very convenient for a 3 yr old. He knows how to drag in a ‘loop object’, then drag in a ‘motor object’ inside the loop, and then a ‘wait for the ultrasonic sensor to be less than a certain distance’ and knows to put some numbers in the fields for the distance etc. It’s all quite entertaining to watch. He is definitely no master and most of his programs make no sense at all … but he tries very hard and has a concept of ‘first you write the program’ then you ‘test the program’. Basic debugging. It’s all very enlightening.

So I have actually bought a more modern EV3 set … which currently sits in the cupboard unopened … as I am trying to get my full ‘mileage’ out of the old NXT set I have. In fact I don’t see the NXT set getting replaced as such. You can do some very clever stuff with the older sets, and there are still a heap of projects available online for them.