Toddler Command Centre
April 1, 2016 6:55 AM   Subscribe

My child will be two in May. She is completely obsessed with switches and buttons so I thought I would build her a console full of interesting switches. What might these switches do?

So, I was thinking that I would start with a desk covered in different buttons which did... something. I need flashy lights, (maybe)noises which can be triggered only after pressing a combination of switches so that it's a bit of a puzzle and also so she can't just spam the "Cow goes Moo" button (or whatever).
Maybe a keypad?

I was thinking I'd have a few (four) seperate removable panels so I could rejig or replace the keys with more complicated things as she gets older, hopefully ramping it up bit by bit until there is proper keyboard and screen and it becomes a real computer.

But first things first:
Do you know of anywhere (in the UK) where I could get like, grab bags of random cheap buttons?
What sort of processing does this need to start with, Raspberry Pi (I have a couple lying around) or Arduino or something?
What combo of buttons/effects would be good?
Can you think of toddler safe interactive bits. I had pondered a ducted fan to blow air when some things are pushed, but that maybe is a good way to lose fingers.
switches that unlock other switches?
Non-switch sensors?
posted by Just this guy, y'know to Technology (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You need to incorporate a useless box somehow. I imagine a useless box would be pure joy to a toddler.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:12 AM on April 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

I would definitely have similar-looking switches that have different button logic - the difference between a light coming on while the button is held down vs coming on when the button is tapped and off when it's tapped again (logical 2-level), vs a button that depresses and holds as a physical two-level switch.

Two of the logical-two-level to control one item means there's a puzzle involved. Neither tells you if it's off or on, but both have to be on for it to work. Of course,she's clever enough that this could lead to having switch A stay on and then switch B toggles the light, so maybe set up switch pairs AB, AC, and BC that control 3 different lights?

This could all be done with a physical circuit, no processing necessary, but the more complicated the puzzle, the more it might be a benefit to have more complex control board.
posted by aimedwander at 7:27 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you want a fan, you can find finger-safe toy fans that have soft rubber or foam blades. For example, in the tragically junky USA one can buy battery powered self-cooler fans to take to the beach, available every summer at the $5-and-under stores. (example)
posted by aimedwander at 7:27 AM on April 1, 2016

If you want to play sound, a Raspberry Pi sounds like the way to go. An Arduino is going to have difficulty generating anything beyond simple beeps and tones. Maybe you could include some kind of memory games, like Simon.

I don't think a fan would be too dangerous. You could take one of those 12V PC case fans and put some kind of screen over it to keep the blades away from prying fingers. (Even if she gets past the screen, you can touch the fan blades without injuring yourself -- it just stings a bit. Run the fan at a lower voltage if you're really worried.)

Bear in mind that if you want to light up anything bigger than one of those tiny indicator LEDs, a GPIO pin won't be able to provide enough current on its own. You'll need a separate power supply and transistors and/or relays to do the switching.

This sounds like an awesome project! Hoping to see some pictures when it's done.
posted by teraflop at 7:29 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

here's something from reddit, some ideas and sources in there. my daughter's activity wall (the redditor's, not mine). It's linked to this imgur gallery
posted by Xere at 7:30 AM on April 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

One thing that could be neat would be to have a peletier chip beneath a heat sink. It could be controlled by a dial and a switch. The dial would control the intensity of the heating or cooling and the switch would either turn it to heat or cool. You should do some experimentation though to ensure that the voltage is limited so as not to cause it to get too hot or too cold.
posted by koolkat at 8:34 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the ways to get 'cheap buttons' might be to go to the local charity shop and poke around the semi-working electronics. (I'm assuming the UK shops also have these sections?) Pull the pieces apart, clean them well, paint them or enamel them if you can/want to, and repurpose them.
posted by cobaltnine at 10:01 AM on April 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Get a color tunable LED source (example) and connect 3 separate dial/slide controllers to tune the brightness of the RBG components (you can bypass the power control that comes with a commercial source, just supply variable current of hte correct DC voltage to each of the 3 color lines) She gets light on/off, and pretty colors, and possibly a basic grasp on color mixing.
posted by aimedwander at 12:04 PM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

(I totally have a box of those already and I didn't think of using them. Awesome)
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 12:19 PM on April 1, 2016

A crank and maybe an old telephone dial might be nice additions. I used to have a solar/hand crank radio that was pretty awesome.
A solar panel that only did something when the sun hit it might be fun, that's how the solar part of the radio worked. The radio would go off when the sun went behind a cloud and back on when the clouds blew away.
A switch that makes a toy move across the desk. You could do one toy that moves across the desk until the switch is turned off and one that completes it's circut no matter what once the switch is flippped.
Some sort of colorful liquid in a tube that bubbles.
A music box (the oldtimey kind, maybe behind a clear panel so they can see the workings.
An optical illusion spinny thing, or several different ones.
It might be fun to mount the fan under the desk so the air blows on their legs. Having some stuff below eye level seems like it would be good for awareness. Something that blows outwards to tickle their ankle maybe.
The toys at Grand Illusions might give you some ideas.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:42 PM on April 1, 2016

Seconding the useless box. I love the useless box.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:47 PM on April 1, 2016

For non-switch sensors, maybe a proximity sensor module like this, which could inform your RGB LED parameters based on distance.
posted by pompomtom at 5:18 PM on April 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can old house it and have three switches that won't work separately but if you do them all at once, something cool happens.
posted by myselfasme at 10:45 PM on April 1, 2016

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