Toys That Teach Tech!

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Anyone who comes to this site does so because they know tech not only ISN’T going away, it’s become an increasingly important aspect of modern life. But we can’t rely on public schools to teach tech to our kids, they’ve already got their hands full teaching the ‘three R’s’. And plenty of adults want to learn more about tech too, but can’t afford to take classes or don’t have the time for them. That’s where this post comes in. Anyone who likes to tinker and experiment can find something here to teach tech in a way that’s fun, and lays a solid foundation for more advanced topics for those who want to take their tech education a little further.

Note that while none of the “toys” I’m covering here are digital, they are all the sorts of things that can get kids, teens, or even adults off and running with technology that can ultimately lead to a better understanding of computer hardware, software, and digital media. So, beginning with a toy that can teach the fundamentals of electronics and circuitry to children as young as eight and ending with something teens and adults can use to build all kinds of fun electronic gadgetry, here are some excellent toys that teach tech.

Snap Circuits

Snap circuits kits make electronics fun and easy to understand, with kits so safe and easy to use they’re rated as appropriate for ages 8 and up! It’s not for nothing that these award-winning electronics project kits get rave reviews across the board from parents and educators. Each kit contains a type of pegboard, numerous plastic bars with wire embedded within them and metal snaps at either end, plus a variety of accessories like a battery pack, fans, lights, beepers, et cetera. You snap the battery pack into position on the peg board, snap the item you want to power into place elsewhere on the board, then connect the two using the plastic bars with the wire embedded in them. Once the circuit is complete, meaning that there’s an unbroken line of plastic bars from the battery pack to the item you want to power, you can flip the switch and turn it on!

The kit pictured above is the Snap Circuits Jr. kit, and as you can see, even in their entry-level kit this company doesn’t scrimp; the only thing you need to provide is the batteries, no other tools will be needed. Nevertheless, the kits are surprisingly affordable, priced at about $25 at the low end for the “Junior” kit and about $95 at the high end for the top-of-the-line, “Extreme” kit that has every possible bell and whistle. Each kit comes with a terrific, illustrated, easy to follow instruction / project book that starts with very basic projects and gradually works up to more complex projects and experiments. Here are links to the various kits on Amazon:

Snap Circuits Jr.

Snap Circuits Physics Kit

Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Kit (with solar cell and crank-powered rechargeable battery)

Snap Circuits Extreme Electronics Project Kit

 

Game Maker

For kids, teens and adults with a video game fascination, Game Maker Studio teaches videogame design with easy-to-follow, step-by-step tutorials that make it possible for anyone to build their first game in a matter of hours. The picture below shows a side-scrolling platform game beginners can tackle as their second or third project! And unbelievably, you can get started with Game Maker for FREE!

The Game Maker software is “object oriented”, which means it’s all about dragging and dropping things: it’s not necessary to write lines of computer code, everything is visual! Anyone who can create a flyer in MS Word or some other graphics or word processor program can do this. Both of my kids have used this software and despite being very young and having no prior experience with video games (other than playing them!), both kids were able to design their own playable video games with Game Maker!

But the software is also built on a ‘code library’ that’s used by real programmers to create real games in the real world, so anyone who really gets into it and wants to take their game development to the next level by writing their own custom code will be able to do that. This isn’t just an exercise in learning a non-transferable skill.

Game Maker has been around a long time, and there’s a vibrant and active online community of users who like to help each other out by sharing their games and tips, and answering beginner questions.

You can begin by downloading the no-frills, FREE version of the software here. Then head on over to the Tutorials area and start with the “Your First Game” tutorial. Following that first success, try some of the other beginner tutorials.

The free version of the software is all you need for the beginner tutorials and projects, and it allows for creation of some surprisingly complex games. But if you (or whomever in your home is using Game Maker) find you’re hooked after those first few projects and want to take your game design to the next level, you can download the Standard or Professional versions of the software There’s even a version designed for actual game developer studios to use for creation of games that can be offered for sale, making it possible for anyone who’s dreamed of launching his or her own videogame startup to do it!

 

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi is the tech toy to get for the inveterate tinkerer. Any teen or adult who’s played around with basic electronics kits (e.g., ‘build your own clock’, ‘build your own solar panel car’, that kind of thing) or various gadgets. Raspberry Pi is a kind of computer electronics starter kit, containing the innards needed to build all manner of cool tech gadgets: digital photo frames, touchscreen tablets, weather stations…one guy even used his to build a controller that played music synced up with his outdoor Christmas lights!

First, get a Raspberry Pi starter kit. I recommend the “Ultimate” kit pictured above, since it already comes with most of the accessories you’ll need to build a variety of gadgets and (as of this writing) is priced at about $80.

Note that some projects may require you to buy additional parts, such as an LCD screen for a digital photo frame project, but even so it’ll generally cost you less to buy the parts and build your own than to buy an off-the-shelf gadget, and there’s the added bonus of being able to totally customize your gadget to your specific wants and needs!

Next, head online to get lots of free, step-by-step instructions for building just about anything you can think of with your Raspberry Pi!

Raspberry Pi: Everything You Need To Know

12 Cool Projects For Your Raspberry Pi – Perhaps the niftiest project on this page is:

Digital Picture Frame – Instead of buying a pricey digital picture frame at your local electronics store, you can make one for half the cost and double the features with Raspberry Pi. This Instructables tutorial outlines a frame that displays not just photos, but also movies, music, and weather reports. Better yet, project author Andy Jagoe said he built it in just a couple of hours.

These links are just to get you started; try Googling on “Raspberry Pi Projects” to find LOTS of additional, FREE tips, tricks, tutorials, videos and resources online.

Also consider picking up this book: Raspberry Pi Projects For The Evil Genius (4/5 stars, currently priced at $9 in Kindle format and $15.81 in paperback – link provided is for the paperback edition) – From Amazon:

A dozen fiendishly fun projects for the Raspberry Pi!

This wickedly inventive guide shows you how to create all kinds of entertaining and practical projects with Raspberry Pi operating system and programming environment. In Raspberry Pi Projects for the Evil Genius, you’ll learn how to build a Bluetooth-controlled robot, a weather station, home automation and security controllers, a universal remote, and even a minimalist website. You’ll also find out how to establish communication between Android devices and the RasPi.

Each fun, inexpensive Evil Genius project includes a detailed list of materials, sources for parts, schematics, and lots of clear, well-illustrated instructions for easy assembly. The larger workbook-style layout makes following the step-by-step instructions a breeze.

Build these and other devious devices:
• LED blinker
• MP3 player
• Camera controller
• Bluetooth robot
• Earthquake detector
• Home automation controller
• Weather station
• Home security controller
• RFID door latch
• Remote power controller
• Radon detector

There’s a volume two book available as well, but it’s probably best to start with this one.

 

Tech: it’s not just for geeks anymore, and with educational tools like these it’s never been a better time to learn. Who knows? Maybe today’s experiments with Snap Circuits, Game Maker or the Raspberry Pi will lead your kids (or yourself) to a career in tech!

 

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