Best DIY electronics and programming kits for kids
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Before we get to it, I'll let you in on a little secret: These kits are fun for anyone who's interested in playing with these technologies or learning more about them, not just kids. Check them out!
Electronics and build-a-computer
littleBits – By far my favorite kit when I think of DIY kits, littleBits is a literal “plug and play” kit of circuits. Pieces connect magnetically, so you have something with lights, or a motor, etc. running in a flash. Check out their projects section when you want inspiration for building a little something more after you've had fun with the basics.
SparkFun – More than just one kit (although there are many fans of their inventor's kit), SparkFun is a marketplace that has scads of projects/kits for making electronics more accessible. Their inventor's kit includes an Arduino, breadboard, sensors, LEDs, and more. The inventor's kit a great kit in general for Arduino, as Arduino gets more interesting once you start adding sensors and other varying inputs/outputs.
Kano – Kano is a computer and coding kit that had a fantastically successful Kickstarter this past December. It's based on the Raspberry Pi, so it's essentially a tiny build-a-computer kit, leveraging the Pi but making it far more accessible. I expect that as it rolls out, we'll see more interesting things coming out of the project.
Lego Robots – If you haven't seen them yet, don't scoff at Lego – these robots are being used in the classroom to introduce kids to robotics and programming. Just like classic Lego, your robot can be as simple or complex as you want.
At a workshop a couple years ago, a few professors walked me and the other attendees through the pedagogy of teaching simple programming, like conditionals and loops, with the robots. From first-hand experience, I recommend it. And when you're ready, check out the Python wrapper to introduce that language into the fun.
Vex Robotics – Another robotics platform with kids in mind. VEX is specifically designed as a platform to get kids (or adults!) into robotics. They also have pretty extensive competitions for many levels worth exploring if your new roboticist is interested in competing.
One of the reviews says it best: “[K]ids get to see the results of their programming right away-the pictures and animations that they created-and are hooked into wanting to learn more.” You can even go check out the editor used in the book to see it in action.
App Inventor for Android – Go from zero to mobile developer in a jiffy. App Inventor for Android, formerly from Google and now out of MIT, lets you build an Android app with a drag-and-drop interface in the browser. The programming portion is done in the “Blocks Editor,” which is not so different from the way Lego would have you program: drag and drop pieces of logic together to specify behaviors.
There're a lot of cool things to check out for yourself and to share with your kids (or nieces or nephews or friends' kids!). Whether you're interested in building computers, introducing circuits, games, or robots, there's something out there for everyone.