Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Circuitry for kids (and adults too!)

Ok, when we're thinking of toys for kids, most people's minds don't jump straight to things like circuit building. Not even at my house! Trains, Legos, and dolls are always near the top of my mind. Max is a train fanatic, the whole family enjoys Legos, and well, we make dolls.

But this year for Christmas, this great Snap Circuits Jr set was on Max's list and my wonderful Aunt and Uncle sent it for him. In the joy of Christmas morning, he looked at it, said "cool!" and "thank you" but then swung back to his Legos. It was about 2 days later that we actually opened it up to play with, but then he was hooked.
I see a bit of Evil Genius shining through here. 
We worked through the first 4 projects together, looking at how the circuit needed to make a complete loop to work, how switches worked, what the resistor did. He was really into it. He got the concept a lot faster than I thought he would, though in hindsight it makes a lot of sense. Max has been building train tracks for years, and a good train track works just like a circuit. It needs to be a complete loop, but can have junctions and points that lead off to stations and features. I just had to convince him that sidings wouldn't work and he was off and running.

He said he was hungry, so I left him to go make lunch. Midway through cooking he screeched and I whipped around. No need to be alarmed, though; it was a squeal of glee that he'd gotten the motor and propeller working on his own! He kept right on going through projects without me, then started making up his own circuits. We discussed the difference between connecting things in series and in parallel. We talked about why batteries run out.

This is the first circuit he built on his own (expanded from one in the book). You have to launch the fake candy from the Cut the Rope game into Om Nom's mouth, then the sound of his mouth snapping shut triggers the sound sensor, which completes the circuit and plays a little victory song through the speaker (with a resistor added so it's not too loud). So proud!
Eventually he went back to trains and Legos, but he's returned to the set often and with the same level of excitement. He was feeling limited by the number of pieces, but discovered you can bridge connections with steel wire, so now he hoards paper clips and bits of wire to expand his creations. Which is pretty awesome, honestly. I suppose we'll have to get him an expansion set for his birthday. I heard the buzzing of the motor one evening as I was doing dishes and asked what he was doing. He nonchalantly told me his dinner was hot so he'd built a fan to cool it a bite at a time. And indeed he had.
The Max-designed dinner-cooling fan.
These are a million great reasons to learn the sorts of Computer Science/logic/engineering skills that playing with circuits can teach, which maybe I'll circle back to another day. For now, let's just agree that it's pretty cool that something so educational can be so much fun. I really do love the Snap Circuits set, but if you want something a little more grownup or fancy or modern, check out these other cool new products and kits! Then, when you're ready, go dive into the world of Arduino and get your geek on!

Circuit Stickers are exactly what they sound like: a way to make real, functioning circuits on paper (or just about any surface) using stickers! Just imagine what kinds of projects that opens up!

When you're ready to do more, go get yourself a Circuit Scribe. These pens have conductive ink which let you literally draw out your circuits, then watch them work!

To go a step farther, check out these real, working electronics ready to assemble on a piece of paper:
Wired explains just how that's done. 

There so much great stuff out there! And there's room for both all-natural no-tech toys and these awesome STEM-skill-building goodies in my kid's life. Hopefully yours too!


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