It must be building up to gift-giving season because I have been asked a whole bunch of times for ideas for what parents should buy their kids to encourage their interest in making – electronics, robots, and programming in particular.
What should you buy your kid, or as a family, to grow their maker passion and skills?
Fortunately, over the last few years STEM (or STEAM if you include art, which I do) has gained … steam. That means there are tons of options that didn’t exist before, and also the older options that stood the test of time are still around and stronger than ever.
One thing I refuse to do is put an age limit or range on any particular thing. First, this should be a family activity. Second, there are teenagers who are better at coding in Java, CNC carving, or developing AI, than I am now in my 40s. Who am I to set an age to anything?
In this series I will dig in to my favourite options, show some ideas of what can be done with them, and also show how they can be used as a foundation for more complex projects.
First, what is the primary interest or goal?
- Get into making in general?
- Learn programming?
- Build robots?
- RC or drones?
- Electronics or IoT building?
- Model or prop making?
Fact is, any one of these can lead to the others, even if the route might not be immediately obvious.
I got into all of this stuff via programming, and my programming journey started one Christmas in the early 1980s when our parents bought a Commodore Vic 20. Back then I learned BASIC, but today the equivalent would be Python on the Raspberry Pi, or maybe Scratch, or …
Let’s take an overview of some of the electronics kit options out there …
Before we get into building things, we should look at some of the options aimed at this market.
This is one of the most recent additions, and it was developed from the ground up to appeal to UK schools and pupils, but has found fans and support right around the world.
The BBC Micro:Bit is inexpensive (kits start at under $25 USD, just the board for around $15 USD), easy to enjoy, and surprisingly powerful.
It has radio wireless, Bluetooth, accelerometer, compass, two buttons, 5×5 LED matrix, 19 pins, convenient alligator clip style pads, and all in a wearable, compact footprint. That latter point plus the convenience and power means, just like some of the other options below, it has spread further than education and kids into the wearables community and beyond.
Specs for microcontroller nerds: Nordic Semiconductor nRF51822, 16 MHz ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller, 256 KB Flash, 16 KB RAM. PWM, Analog, SPI/I2C.
From the new kid to the granddaddy, Arduino was the product that kickstarted the micro controller side of the mass-maker movement. OK, things like the Stamp existed, but they were expensive, difficult to work with, slow, and closed. There was a clear gap in the market driven by frustration, and the board that became the Arduino was born out of necessity.
Hard to think it has been less than 10 years since the Arduino explosion, but it has come a long way since its introduction as an education board for Italian university students! It’s got the biggest, most vibrant community, there are plentiful boards, upgrades, add-ons, libraries and project tutorials, and it’s possible to get started for less than the price of a latte.
One disadvantage of the Arduino is the “Arduino language” is C/C++. That is not to say it is impenetrable, but there are good usability and friendliness reasons why educators gravitate to the alternatives. This does mean, however, that your path from learning to industrial/commercial usage is not vast – the chips used in Arduino projects, especially the AVR, can and do make their way into commercial projects, and the majority of any of the popular platforms either are compatible, or interoperate with it.
While you can go to the source and buy the official boards and kits (and it is good to support them), most people buy off-brand and save money, because due to the open source hardware nature it’s not frowned upon.
Arduino is a community, toolchain, reference design, and ecosystem, from the ATTINY on home made PCBs, through to ESP32-powered “Internet of Things” home automation networks, and beyond.
This means people are building “Arduino” projects on a lot of things that are not, strictly speaking, Arduino. The future path for anyone acquainted with Arduino is rich and interesting, though of course there is a large segment of the community who will look down on people using anything other than truly hardcore hardware.
On the robot side there are all kinds of kits, parts, and platforms. One of the most complete and robust for Arduino is the aluminium constructed Makeblock out of Shenzhen, China.
Raspberry Pi and Kano
The Pi is my favourite all-rounder. While it might not be quite as capable at driving physical computing as a real time embedded microcontroller such as the Arduino, it is waaay more than just that.
Again, the Raspberry Pi started off as a way to get more kids learning about IT and programming beyond writing word processing documents. When it launched it shook up the whole community, and has caused ripples far and wide, as it was a powerful single board computer at a very achievable price. Rather than showing up just in classrooms, it has become almost synonymous with maker and hacker culture, on screen and in the real world.
You can build everything from a multimedia home entertainment system, web server, retro arcade emulation station, or 3d printer management console, through to a workable laptop, machine learning system, webcam, or even voice controlled virtual assistant. Heck, strap a few together and make a super computing rig.
Fact is, because it is basically a tiny, cheap, single board PC, with graphics, sound, memory, and gigabytes of SD card storage, plus the ability to interface with the outside world, the main limit is imagination.
Folks can start with Scratch, the famous visual, drag and drop programming system, and Python of course, with the default Raspbian operating system this is a fully fledged Linux computer, so you can program it with basically anything, and you are not even stuck with the default OS either.
Hardware and operating system considerations alone do not explain the popularity, though it obviously helps. The Raspberry Pi foundation built a community and resources, as well as brought together technology. This is why lookalikes haven’t made the same headway, even considering price or specification advantages.
The latest and greatest boards are the Raspberry Pi 3, and the diminutive Pi Zero W, and both have wifi and bluetooth built in. The zero is tiny but comes without headers soldered, plus it has a slightly lower spec, but if you can find them in stock they are also a little cheaper. You can buy individual boards (I have one attached to each of my printers, plus one under each TV), or buy kits. If you are starting out I suggest a kit, otherwise you are going to need a USB power adapter that provides 2 amp, plus a nice sized SD card (I suggest 8gb upwards) at minimum, preferably HDMI cable too, assuming you will be using it with a TV.
To go one step further with kits, Kano does an all in one educational Pi kit, including all the hardware, plus a suite of educational software. You can use their software on any Raspberry Pi, so the comprehensive kit is more for convenience and to support the creators more than anything.
Littlebits are the first of the selection where we are not just talking about the brains of the project, but a whole electronics construction set. Kit prices range from $50 to hundreds, depending on the complexity and parts.
In this case the kit provides a variety of colorful magnetic snap-together pieces, that when joined create an electronic circuit with various abilities. While there are standard items that you would expect and hope for, such as buttons and LED lights, there are exciting options such as bluetooth, Arduino, and Wifi. You can use sensors, buttons/dials/sliders as inputs, and lights, sounds and motors as outputs.
To go along with the “snap together” approach, you can use the IFTTT.com service with your “cloud bit”, and a phone app to speak to the bluetooth enabled bit.
Don’t let the rainbow colors and cartoon branding fool you, these bits are highly capable and can rapidly produce some useful prototypes.
If you want something more intuitive to build, you can’t ask for more familiar than LEGO.
Mindstorms is a complete robot and invention building kit, allowing you to put together sensors, actuators, and the EV3 brain to make extremely capable robots, from line-followers through to some amazingly complex projects.
The EV3 brain is a little linux computer, much like the Pi, and by installing an operating system onto your SD card, and plugging in a wifi dongle, you can even bypass the Scratch-like set up and program in Java or Python.
You can get Mindstorms at the usual places, online or in a physical LEGO store, but look out for discounts because it’s usually found between $350 and $400 USD.
By going with LEGO you are not giving up Arduino or Raspberry Pi either – there are add-on boards that allow you to use all of the above!
Now we come to the most advanced technology out of the list, and the one that is way beyond a toy or learning tool and is really at the stage where it is a true robotics platform.
Remember the pet robot AT AT that went around the internet a while back? Yup, that was DJ from EZ-Robot who built that … using the EZ-Robot platform:
There was also the guy that used EZ-Robot to create his Scarlett Johansson robot but this is meant to be for families 😉
I am a tiny bit biased here because EZ Robot is a Calgary based company, but that is where my bias ends and my nerd side takes over. You can buy parts or kits. I would recommend starting with a kit and adding on (I started out by purchasing the $150 USD Adventure bot).
If you would rather go right to your own inventions, that is an option too, as there is a development kit, or just purchase one of the EZB v4 board options (starting at $25 USD for the Tiny version with fewer pins, or $80 for the fully built out processing unit).
The one shame about the EZ platform is officially Windows based – I actually bought a Dell laptop to use this system when VM wasn’t cutting it – there is, however, an iOS app, and people have successfully used the open source Mono version of .net and other remarkable 3rd party developments.
Though the brains are obviously proprietary to EZ-Robot, everything else is open, even down to the option of 3D printing your own plastic parts.
If you want the fastest route to voice control and computer vision, while controlling a bunch of motors and servos, then check out these guys.
Now you have been introduced to the main players, really we need to show the options in action.
As I said in the introduction, there is no one right answer – far better for you to see what sparks your interest then go from there!
Anything I have missed? Please share in the group and I will consider including in a future update …