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June 24, 2015 1:52 PM   Subscribe

My nine year old has declared that he's interested in technology and wants to work on a project this summer. I'm not completely sure where this comes from, since his exposure to technology has mainly been netflix and mindcraft. I'd love to find a fun project we could work on together.

Some details:
1. He's a reasonable good problem solver, but not really technological.
2. I've thought about things like arduino, and while in some ways that seems like an awesome learning experience, I'm a little hesitant to work on a project for weeks and at the end have, for example, some lights turn on and off (It may be that I totally underestimate what you can do with arduino - if so I'd love to learn that!) In any case, one thing I'm hoping he'll get out of it is that you can actually make cool stuff yourself.
3. I actually work in IT myself, but much more on the "Information" side than the "Technology" side. I'd be happy to learn some new things too.
4. I'm willing to invest some money in the experience.

I'd love to hear of any experiences people have had building something with a young son or daughter that helped develop that "maker" mindset.
posted by TheShadowKnows to Technology (20 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
If he hasn't had any experience with them before, Snap Circuits or Lego Robotics stuff would be a great starting place. If he's been exposed to things like that before, Arduino is the next step. My 10 year old nephew just got one for his birthday, so I'm hoping people will tell you some great Arduino stories, so I'll know what to buy him next.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:57 PM on June 24, 2015

Arduino and Raspberry Pis are a bit advanced for my nine year old. We've been going through Code Combat together and it's been pretty fun. I also have a 130-in-1 electronics kit that we'll break out every once in a while, but that's a bit more advanced for him right now.
posted by boo_radley at 2:04 PM on June 24, 2015

Build a Lego Rubik's Cube Solver!
posted by bruceo at 2:21 PM on June 24, 2015

They're not electronic, but most of this stuff in Backyard Ballistics would be helluva lot of fun for a 9-year-old (esp. the potato cannon which is basically awesome for all ages).
posted by jquinby at 2:27 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Why not ask him?

He'll likely tell you what kind of project he's most interested in, what he's most excited about in technology, and where he heard about that. Maybe he saw something in a movie, or heard some friends talk about something they or their siblings made, or saw something online. He may even have something very specific in mind.

The reason I say this is because there's a whole lot of different ways you could go, and you're best to capture his interest in the area where he's most inclined.

* If he's into computer hardware, build a $300 PC together
* If he's into computer software, introduce him to Codemonkey. Then, teach him to create a basic web site from scratch.
* If he's into electronics hardware, teach him to solder and then build a Mousebot

These would all be a little too ambitious without you, but together, you could both work together to create something tangible and foster an interest in technology. But be sure to ask him!
posted by eschatfische at 2:38 PM on June 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

How about the 4H Junk Drawer Robotics curriculum? It's a great intro to engineering style thinking, gets physical stuff moving quickly, and will be skills that will grow well into Arduino or whatever's trendy at the time robotics later.

The hardest part about microcontrollers isn't the controllers, it's what they're actuating. Lego Mindstorms is good for that, but so is a hot glue gun, a bunch of popsicle sticks, and other common household items.
posted by straw at 2:54 PM on June 24, 2015

Soldering together electronics kits will give him (and you) wonderful confidence and also a good sense of what's inside basic electronic devices. Doing it without Arduino is a good way to start, since the individual parts are visible and handleable. I admit that most kits are not that great, since you end up making something that's neither particularly useful nor attractive.

However, we made this kitchen timer and it's pretty good! We use it every single day. It has exactly one button and is very loud, so it's great for most general kitchen uses.

There are also some little games that look fun, in particular this one.

It's OK if you don't 100% understand the difference between a resistor and a capacitor; the kits are pretty much paint-by-numbers. Look up a few "how to through-hole solder" tutorials on YouTube (very helpful), get some good reading glasses or a magnifier so you can see what's going on, and you're ready. If you want to be a superhero, buy two kits so that making a mistake isn't quite so worrying (or you could end up with two awesome kitchen timers, which is a good thing, or a present for Grandma).

Yes, you could use Snap Circuits, and yes, soldering with a very hot iron is a little dangerous, but the feeling of competence and power is great, and even going through a kit step-by-spelled-out-step will teach you a lot. In my opinion, learning tools that don't let you handle actual parts don't show you what's really going on; there's still too much difference from what's actually inside appliances to make the learning tools very interesting. Plus, if he goes on to learn more, and possibly be creative, it will make him seriously interesting as a person.

I'm not up on what age kids can do what; it's possible that nine is too young for this, but OTOH if _you_ start learning now, you'll be ready to explain later.
posted by amtho at 2:55 PM on June 24, 2015

Lego has some kits to make moving vehicles, that would be a great and straightforward (modest, mechanical-only) starting place. "Crazy Action Contraptions" is one that I've done and it was a lot of fun, and there are others in the same series.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:10 PM on June 24, 2015

oooh, look at the Humble Bundle for kids programming books that just went up:


My nieces/nephew are 5 and under, otherwise I'd be tempted to buy this bundle (heck I might just buy it and wait until they come of age). The Arduino Workshop book looks awesome.
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:14 PM on June 24, 2015

You can actually get an Arduino project blinking its lights pretty quickly; books like Getting Started with Arduino include instructions and written programs if you want. That said, Snap Circuits or Little Bits (which I like somewhat better) are also a fun option.

Elenco's learn to solder kits are excellent. They include space to practice before you try the actual project, and their instruction books include information about what solder is, how it works, and so on.

If you son might be interested in what you might call more archaic technology, Leonardo da Vinci building kits have been a lot of fun for us.

Mindstorms robotics are great; they're a pricy investment but there are lots of project books that give you designs for things that will take anywhere from an hour on up to build. If your kid is less interested in building than in experimenting and programming, I highly recommend the less-costly Edison robotics. They come with existing programs like line following, and downloading the programs to the robot is done by driving it over a bar code. But they are very customizable. They are cheap enough that I think it's worth buying two of the little robots, because they can interact in fun ways.

If he wants to program, another good resource is Super Scratch Programming Adventure. One of my kids enjoyed it a lot. There's also a new free learn-to-program app called Tickle that allows for building apps but also can also be used to control many real-world things. I haven't used it but I was part of the kickstarter for it so I have an investment there.
posted by not that girl at 3:16 PM on June 24, 2015

My nine year old is having a total blast in her 3rd week of summer programming camp. It may or may not be too late to sign up for camps later in the summer? Her camp is really more about hacking existing programs (javascript games), but its a great introduction to looking at code, working in an IDE, understanding what things do etc.
posted by H. Roark at 3:22 PM on June 24, 2015

Bitsbox sends monthly boxes with coding projects and other fun stuff.

Sphero is a robotic ball that you can program to do fun things.

littleBits has kits to help kids build their own gadgets and devices.
posted by mogget at 3:30 PM on June 24, 2015

I'd suggest you sit down together for an hour and look at the Sparkfun and Adafruit websites to see if he's excited by any of the kits (but with the caveat -- in advance -- that some of them may be out of reach in terms of cost and/or complexity).

One project in particular that has a favorable coolness to time investment ratio is a Raspberry Pi based MAME cabinet. (The Adafruit "cupcade" is cute, but not as nice to play as a bigger cabinet.) You can do this in stages: Start with a bare Pi, preloaded MicroSD card and a cheap off-the-shelf USB controller. That's a couple evenings and maybe US$50.

If that was fun, add a dedicated display, better controls and/or a custom cabinet. The X-Arcade brand (sold by XGaming) has input devices just like the ones on old-school coin-op machines (and they're not that expensive).

Another option: the Pi version of Minecraft has a Python API. That means you can have things in the game do stuff in the physical world and vice-versa. It requires some coding skill, but nothing that should intimidate a dedicated Minecraft player who wants to take it up a Notch.
posted by sourcequench at 3:36 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about a halloween costume? El wire, LED's, mini projectors, robot arms, etc. Some neat ideas at the Stan Winston school.
posted by Sophont at 6:18 PM on June 24, 2015

Just coming in to recommend LittleBits -- they're fun and adaptable as well as accessible. They do get pricey, though, as you start adding stuff in.

I've dabbled some in electronics (mostly replacing computer parts and such and some attempts at circuit bending) but I've liked how LittleBits is fun but low-risk in terms of experimenting and it doesn't feel like "kid's first electronic project" or anything.
posted by darksong at 6:59 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Little bits are great for this kind of thing. I would take a look at instructables.com, they have lots of projects that would work for him and they are usually laid out step by step really well, usually with a parts list attached.
posted by dstopps at 7:00 PM on June 24, 2015

Get a Makey Makey! I'm on mobile, so I can't link. It's a little electronics board that you use with alligator clips to turn anything into a keyboard. Which sounds amazingly dull until you see the video of the piano stairs or water bucket DDR pad... It's a thing that grows with your imagination, and given your kids interests? I'd say it's perfect. Turn the whole world into Minecraft. He could make the most excellent Minecraft keyboard ever with models and stuff. It's a really accessible and fun way to learn about circuits and understand inputs into a computer.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:47 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

To start with, get medieval on him. Old technology. Use wood, saw, hammer, nails, hinges, axles, pulleys, etc., to build a catapult, then a bigger catapult, and then the one you accidentally do some real damage with and have to explain to your neighbor and hide from your wife. Use pulleys and ropes to make it easy for little him to lift huge things off the ground. Build a tree house. Build a soap box car. Things like that. How to build stuff. Planning. Organization. Teamwork. Testing. Trial and error. Hammering and sawing. Sore muscles. Sore thumbs. Cut fingertips.

Then get electrical (not electronic). Get batteries and wire and lamps. Learn what things are and how to wire them together. Different kinds of switches and lamps. Learn the difference between series and parallel circuits. Learn how light switches (toggles, etc.) can be used to illustrate AND and OR logic. Turn a nail into an electromagnet, then build a little electromagnetic crane like a miniature of what you see in a junk yard. Get electrical motors and build little cars or robots. Use a windmill to turn a motor to generate electricity. Try solar panels. Try hydroelectricity. Electrify his bike -- extra lights or a horn or turn signals or whatever. Learn how to solder electrical connections on a large scale (lamp wiring). Build a real AC desk or reading lamp that doesn't kill anyone and that he actually uses every day. Replace an on/off switch with a dimmer switch.

And then maybe dive into little electronics projects.
posted by pracowity at 1:30 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that technology is mostly a tool to do something else. Find a non-tech area of interest that can be the basis of a project. For example, if he is interested in games, find a project where he can learn to program an object moving around the screen. (I wouldn't know how to do that nowadays; it was easy on the Commodore 64 when my son was that age.) If he is interested in music, help him learn how to make sounds on the computer. If he is interested in photography, teach him about photoshop. Etc.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:15 AM on June 25, 2015

Thanks for all the awesome ideas! I've got a lot of great leads from your collective awesomeness. Much appreciated!
posted by TheShadowKnows at 3:34 PM on June 25, 2015

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