Friday, December 9, 2016

Need Christmas Help for your Little Engineers?

Not a surprise, I get a lot of requests for christmas gift recommendations for little engineers.  For the last two years I have kept a list that I can just easily email out.  After doing so several times just this week already and sending it to my husband to send onwards to others as well, I decided maybe I would just post it!

Sometimes I think I should run a blog for maker kids!  So here are some things that I like and we have as well as given to others often.  I am always interested in creativity, teamwork, fun, laughter, easy to start with instructions, good customer service, and well made (hard for kids to break).  Frustration level should be low in my book - but creativity possibilities should be high.  I can't stand toys that have only one play mode and doesn't last a kid only one age period of their life.  It should be as interesting to an adult as the kid.  I have tried to post these in increasing order of difficulty and age.  But I will let you figure out where the kid in your life is and what they can handle.  I was buying Technic sets (14-18 yrs old) for my five year old so I know that ages are just a guide.

1.  Lift-it Deluxe:  We found this game last summer in Sweden in local languages and brought it
home.  We love it and it is so hilarious and works for all ages.  We pull it out for Thanksgiving with groups, use it to train the robot kids on teamwork and generally laugh like crazy.  Everyone straps a little crane to their head and trys to lift pieces to make the structures seen on cards in pairs.  Great family game!

Actually, make sure you have your camera ready as the pictures will not only be good for blogs but blackmail, weddings, and other uses!

Here are some robot guys doing it for a break!

2.  Little-Bits.  I just love these and their new package (Gizmos and Gadgets) is great with all the cute video that gives you an idea about what these magnetic electrical parts can do.
projects.  We have used these more than any other electrical engineering set we have had (and we have them all).  They are so well thought out and not surprisingly, these like several on the list have come out of the MIT Media Lab.  They are expensive, but just like Legos, very expandable and you never grow out of them.  I have had my kids use them to prototype controllers for their FLL projects, make an automatic hamster feeder, and many other hilarious devices.  They are reusable and have adaptors to connect them to LEGOs.  Product designers are buying them to use them to prototype device concepts and they are in these great and friendly colors that work well for boys and girls.

3. Oz Bots - again another real winner!  Not too bad price wise, I have donated many of these in the inner city, tiny two inch robots that can follow any line you draw.  The super cool thing about them is that you can color code the lines and dashes and circles to make the oz bot do things.  So it is a early way of learning programming and includes art.  There are online resources for them, print out games to use as well as games on your iPad that the oz bot can drive on.  There are then little paper decorations and game pieces you can use to expand on the ozbot.  If you have a kid that doesn't like to build want to encourage to get into robots, this is a fantastic first step.  As well as a good 'purse toy'.  The BIT is the original for drawing and now they have another type EVO which is a more connected social one (haven't tried yet).  They are hard to break.

4.  Chibitronics Circuit Stickers.  These beginner kits are amazingly reasonable in price, especially
for what they are!  I have loved these and have known the developer since she was a graduate student, had a wonderful dinner with her the other night and told her how some of my students are playing with them to back their embroidery so they will light up.  So the kit contains a little guide book, conductive adhesive backed copper tape and these amazing little stickers that are LEDs.  They are reusable and you can go through the book making many different paper art projects that light up.  A fantastic way to teach kids about basic circuits and then do art with them.

5.  Circuit Scribe - this is another development from my alma matter and another research lab.  The
innovation here is a conductive ink that will work in a ball point pen.  I can't tell you how hard that is as someone who has been working in that area for years.  Nanotechnology is the answer.  So now you can draw your circuit lines and then connect electrical devices to them.  This is a kit with magnetic pieces to teach electronic circuits. We have enjoyed it - especially the drawing part.  You can draw direct into the workbook in the larger kits to learn.   This is for pre-teens to teens but is really cool.

There was a very cool commercial for BMW made using this ink pen - worth a quick watch to see what is possible.

6.  Mindstorms.  Hands down most fantastic extension of LEGO.  There is no end to what people do
with it as kids and adults.  There are fantastic books, online resources, you-tube videos, instructibles, projects on LEGOs site, and of course it is the basis of First Lego League.  You own one, you are only three kids away from being the coach of a FLL team.  The best robot system you can buy a kid.  Yes it is expensive, but it make the rest of your LEGOs have a second (and third) life.  It also does go together correctly, the software is constantly being updated and if I have ever had a problem, there is a live person on the phone who will help you and will replace the processor brick if needed.  There are learn to program resources by LEGO and many, many, many universities - almost all open source.  I have never regretted the first kit I bought.  And yes, I own six of them now and we still use the one we bought eight years ago, so that is pretty good return on the investment.

7.  Make Block.  This is now one of my older child's favorite robot building systems.  We met the
creater at our first Maker Faire and now it is quite a big company.  The metal building system is top notch.  Finally they are doing better about the software interface with their new MBot.  I have several of them and have donated several to STEM groups.   We regularly buy more of the blue parts as David has made many different things with them - the latest is a 3-D printer he is working on to build Lego buildings (if he pulls it off - I will let you know - it is a problem the Media Lab has).  This is a great place to go after many of the other things on this list, and as you can see it will bring an accomplished kid builder to a next level.  Hard to find things for those kids.  This has less documentation than the other things on my list but is so high in quality and expansion potential that I have to have it on the list.

8.  Actobotics - Only go here when you have a true total gear head on your hands.  As I have those, I
know that some grandparents and parents have no idea what to go to next for these types of kids.  They have exhausted LEGOs and want to go on.  Where do you go?? Well, if they don't want to do Make Block, then Actobotics is the next level.  There are robot kits there and again, infinitely expandable.  Along with Tetrix, this is the system used for First Tech Challenge.  It is our favorite and yes, we own tons of both systems.  Like $$$$$$$ of them (we did a bill of materials for last year's robot that climbed the 5 foot ladder - $4000).  Again, I only put it in my list because there is at least one person out there who has by the time they have gotten to this list said 'but we already have all that stuff!! What do I do for my kid who has everything!?'.   In fact, I am that parent this year and am struggling to find christmas gifts under $1000 (ok, he has half a machine shop on his list).

9. Make Magazine - the only magazine that comes to the house and the adults and all kids grab it and
pour over it.  If it is crazy and someone has made it - it shows up here.  The advertisements are a great place to find out what is possible.  There are kid projects, adult projects and just amazing visual candy of - wow - that can be made?!  We don't often make anything out of it, but it keeps the creative mind juices going.  With how dumbed down so many toys are and and with video games, this magazine has single-handedly brought back the Radio Shack generation that went to the moon.  Stick a copy in the maker stocking of your choice and see how many people in the family moon over it.  Then someday make a plan to attend a maker-faire by them and your mind will be blown.  Take a child with you - you will be making an engineer that day for sure.  Not a surprise but the online blogs, resources, etc are amazing too.  And there is a store called Maker Shed.  Another great place to look for gifts.  They are also introducing needlework to the 30 and under set too.  Watch out - when I finish with historic embroidery, you will find me in those pages, I just haven't had enough time to start publishing there to take the 20-somethings to the next level.

I have a lot more that we have tried, are trying this Christmas or haven't made the cut because this blog is just too long.  But if it is made, we have it and otherwise, I have already pledged on Kickstarter for it or am part of the test crew (both my son and I work on developments with STEM projects or test for companies).  If this resonates - I can put more up later on getting little kids started.



  1. Thanks Tricia, I got my son the Mindstorm kit he's 38 but still likes this kind of thing and will be something a little bit different he won't be expecting. I think he will also be amused to discover I learned of it because of my CoC class.

  2. We want more about getting little kids started. I've sent this to every grandparent I know in the off chance it is perfect for their younger family members (and the oldsters).

  3. I just heard from another COC person that I sent the list to - she gave the Ozobots to everyone for Christmas and they were a huge hit. I would start there. Also LEGO just announced a new commercial robotics kit that will release in summer - I had heard rumors from kids who tested it - it will be half the cost of the Mindstorms ($160) and I suspect will use a repackaged version of Scratch for the programming. Sounds really cool