Learning Toys and STEM Toys We Love: Wirecutter Reviews
These toys help kids jump into experimenting with electronic circuitry and computing (with no soldering required). Each of these kits can be played with on its own to experiment with connections, signals and inputs and to understand how electronic circuits and computing systems work. But the real fun comes when you use them as the electronic guts and brains for your own projects.
Recommended for ages eight and up, LittleBits are ready-made, modular circuits that snap together with magnets. Colors designate their types: blue for power sources, pink for inputs, green for outputs and orange for wires. Kids can connect a battery-supplied power source to, say, on/off and dimmer inputs, followed by a servo motor, to see how they work together to power and modulate the speed of the motor. “I hide the instructions,” says Mike Matthews, the curriculum director at Burke’s, instead having students experiment with combinations and configurations on their own to learn how connections, switching, and splitters work together.
The base kit comes with 10 circuits, including a power source (connected to a 9-volt battery), on/off button, dimmer switch, and servo motor (which can spin or rotate back and forth). But you can also buy LittleBit circuits a la carte, choosing from over 50 options including a USB-connectable power source, an Arduino microcontroller, timers, touchpads, MIDI players and more. This opens up the real possibilities of LittleBits: kids can use them to add motion, sound, and programming to any of their other toys and creations, from, say adding a motor to a Lego car, smart lighting in a doll’s house or scary sounds to papier mache Halloween decorations. The ready-to-go circuits may also spark a deeper interest in learning the fundamentals of circuit theory and transitioning to experimenting with breadboards and wiring on their own.
SnapCircuits let kids explore the fundamentals of electronics and circuit design by using basic components (power sources, switches, resistors, capacitors and wires of different sizes) that snap together on a flat surface (essentially a large, easy-to-use breadboard). Kids can model various types of working circuits, follow pictorial instruction cards to create projects like radios, alarms, and doorbells, or experiment on their own.
The beauty of SnapCircuits is that, unlike with kits using ready-made motors and electronic components, kids are actually building and designing real circuits (including a short circuit, if you’re not careful)—much in the same way an engineer would prototype circuits, albeit in a simplified and accessible form. The color-coded, plastic-encased components are all marked with the standard electronic symbols (i.e., for switches, capacitors and inductors), which develops familiarity with symbols and values used in actual circuit design.
SnapCircuits targets ages eight and up (like LittleBits), though younger kids may be able to enjoy SnapCircuits with some adult supervision. Wirecutter’s Chris Heinonen says the components and instructions are accessible enough that his 6-year-old and 4-year-old play with the circuits together, sometimes draining batteries in the process.
We recommended the Kano Computer Kit in our 2015 holiday gift guide as a great gift for “a curious kid of any age who has mastered Lincoln Logs, Erector sets, and LEGOs but isn’t quite up for soldering (or old enough for an electrical engineering degree program).” The kit, which is accessible for kids as young as six, has you assemble a small, portable computer using a Raspberry Pi 3 processor with 1 GB RAM, a wireless keyboard and touchpad, a speaker, and cables. We know that’s lot of money for what is effectively a $35 Raspberry Pi 3 processor, speakers and wireless keyboard, but you’re paying for the convenience of a “kit” that a kid can access and the accompanying apps, which get updated/enhanced over time.
The computer can pair with any display with an HDMI port, so you can use it with your TV or home monitor. Or, you can buy Kano’s Screen Kit, which includes a carrying case for the whole computer. The Kano’s simplicity may seem limiting (the components just snap together, so it’s really more “putting together” than building a computer), but this is part of its appeal: Kids can figure out how the basic parts of a computer work together and can feel like they “built it” without needing to be guided by an adult. Wirecutter senior editor Dan Frakes says his 9-year-old daughter “really liked the idea behind ‘I built a computer.’”