“I’m bored!” Two words that any parent dreads hearing on a dull Sunday afternoon, entertaining your kids when they’ve run out of goombas to hop on in Mario isn’t always as easy as throwing an iPad their way and hoping for the best. Luckily, nowadays there are plenty of at-home computing projects you can use to give your up-and-coming geeks a chance to not only have fun building their own computers, but also to learn in-depth information about subjects like computer hardware, software, programming and mechanical engineering all in the same place.
Here’s our selection of some of the best computing kits made for kids and parents to share and learn with together (and yes, almost all of them will play Minecraft).
First up, we’ve got the most obvious pick of the bunch: the Raspberry Pi.
The Pi is a dirt-cheap minimalist PC that no one really knew they needed until they got their hands on one. This is a low-key computer that skimps on extra features like a big, clunky processor or huge noisy fans in favor of compact, easy-to-install parts and a proprietary “Raspbian” operating system that encourages educational inquiry above all else. The Raspberry Pi is unique in its ability to fascinate kids and adults in equal fashion, filled with hundreds of out-of-the-box opportunities that helps the kids learn like the adults and lets the adults feel like kids again.
Rather than continue to ramble on about how awesome the system is myself, I’ll leave it up to How-To Geek’s resident Raspberry Pi expert Jason Fitzpatrick and his series of guides to list a few projects that all members of the family can enjoy together either as a team, or just one-on-one with any aspiring computer scientists who happen to be in the room:
- How to Run Low-Cost Minecraft on a Raspberry Pi for Block Building on the Cheap
- How to Enjoy Dead Simple Raspberry Pi Setup with NOOBS
- Turn a Raspberry Pi into a Steam Machine with Moonlight
- Build a $35 Media Center with Raspbmc and Raspberry Pi
As you can tell, the Pi is jam-packed with project possibilities that strike a fine balance between a low skill ceiling required for entry, alongside a much deeper system of customization and modular add-ons waiting on the back end. “Easy to learn, difficult to master” should be the company logo by this point, as more people find and share their latest and greatest ideas for the little system that could.
The most recent version of Pi is the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, released earlier this year. It can be found on Amazon for just under $40 at base, while upgrade modules will cost anywhere from $15 to $150 depending on how tricked out you want your mini-PC to be.
If you took everything we already love about the Raspberry Pi and streamlined all of it for the express purpose of teaching kids more about how computing and coding works, what comes out on the other side might look a whole lot like the Kano.
First launched on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, Kano is “a computer that anyone can make”, according to the project’s co-founder and CEO Yonatan Raz-Fridman. In an interview about his company, Fridman says the Kano was built to remove the boundary that exists between kids who are interested in computers, and the appropriate resources available to let that interest flourish in today’s learning curriculum. To surmount that gap, the Kanos is made just as much for the classroom as it is your living room. Components for the Kano fit together as easy as Lego, crammed inside a clear case that lets any upstart hardware designer see the fruits of their labor in action as it buzzes, beeps, and whirs to life.
And don’t worry: like any computing product that’s released with the under-10 market in mind, the Kano does run Minecraft. In fact – predicting that this would be the very first thing a kid would want to do once the Kano successfully boots up for the first time – the programmers behind it incorporated a whole list of Minecraft-centric coding challenges that tricks them into learning programming around the frame of playing one of their favorite games.
Through a series of preset tasks, kids can navigate through their virtual world and build various towers and castles not just by throwing down blocks willy nilly, but through an intuitive coding system that Kano uses to encourage kids to learn about the basic structure that makes languages like Java and C# work. Think of it like “Mario Typing” for the next generation of kids entering the nearest STEM program.
Starter kits for an individual Kano retails for $99 (with $19 shipping for US customers), while their new “Screen Kit” (which, as the name implies, teaches kids about what makes LCD flatscreens work) can be tacked on for an additional $120.
You can imagine my surprise when in researching this article, I thought I’d dig up a relic from my own childhood to see if it was still alive and kicking. Lo and behold, the team at Lego is still happily churning out refreshed versions of its “Mindstorm” brand, a series of build-it/code-it modules that give kids the ability to not only make their own robot, but also learn how to tell it what to do as it rolls, tumbles, and wobbles around their house.
Known to today’s kids as “that thing that was like Minecraft before Minecraft”, the latest “EV3” iteration of the nearly two-decade block-building kit teaches kids how to program their robots to go on adventures of their very own, all coded in realtime over a wireless or Bluetooth connection. For every step the robot takes or can of soda it delivers, paths must be carefully planned out well in advance to ensure the best chances of mission success, reinforcing some of the most basic concepts inherent to a proper programming mindset.
This combination of coding and mechanical engineering is a heady cocktail that can fool even the most learning-adverse kids into thinking about machines, and the chips that power them, in all new and surprising ways. The LEGO Mindstorm EV3 kit starts at $349.99, and goes up from there depending on the model you choose and the number of sensors (everything from IR to GPS) it needs attached.
If you were one of the readers who caught our article on Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) boxes last month, you already know that these tiny DIY PCs offer up the perfect combination of simplicity and power into a chassis that’s not much larger than a few decks of cards stacked together. Clipped together piece by piece, every NUC comes as a kit of separate parts that need to be assembled in just the right order before it turns on, including a hard drive, RAM, and any operating system you plan on using. Equipped with Iris HD graphics, NUCS also happen to be the most powerful of the mini-PCs here, which means that anyone who might want to play a game that involves some sort of crafting of different materials (perhaps like those you might find in a mine) will have the chance to do so, but they’ll also have to read the instructions on putting the whole thing together first.
If we had to pin make-your-own NUCs down on the scale of technical difficulty, it would be fair to say they’re about two steps above a Kano, but still a few leagues under a full-on DIY desktop undertaking. Prices on NUCs vary greatly depending on the model you eventually decide on, from $100 for a simple Celeron setup up to $500 for a full-fledged quad-core i7. That said, no matter how much money you spend, they’re always going to show up on your doorstep in several different pieces that all need to be snapped and screwed together by hand before anyone’s punching any pixelated trees to up their wood supply.
The end result of this setup process will leave your child with the knowledge of what parts go where in a PC, and what makes devices like their iPad tick. Plus, they get a PC that’s both cheap and durable enough to give you a little more peace of mind the next time there’s grape juice on the desk and a certain someone hasn’t perfected their range of motion on a mouse just yet. To hit a balance of just enough power to run most games (educational or otherwise) on higher settings with a medium-sized budget, we recommend the NUC 5i5RYH, which at $349 boasts an impressive Intel HD Iris 6000 chip as well as an ultra-efficient i5-5250U dual-core processor as a part of the total package.
Both the Raspberry Pi and the NUC offer a baseline introduction into the world of computing, but if your “little” one is just on the cusp of being not-so-little anymore it might be time for the two of you to dive in on a full-fledged DIY PC.
I know I wouldn’t be the geek I am today if my dad hadn’t sat me down in our garage when I was nine to help me build my first PC, and from then on it was love at first sight. If you think your kids are at the point where they’ll be able to understand where the big pieces go and the do’s and don’ts of proper power management, building an actual computer can be a fascinating journey down the rabbit hole for would-be engineers who maintain a healthy curiosity about what’s actually going on in the guts of a true gaming desktop.
Obviously of all the options here, going this route will set you back the furthest depending on how tricked-out you think their eventual PC should be. But, even though prices to build a desktop from scratch can cost anywhere from the sub-$400 range all the way up to a few thousand at checkout, of this selection they’re by far the most future-proof investment you can make to get your kid, teenager, or soon-to-be MIT graduate excited about the potential that careers in computing and technology can have.
Of course, these are just a few of the many different independent projects out there that give any kid (or kid at heart) the tools and knowledge they’ll need to understand the basics of today’s technology. And though most of these DIY computers may just look like a means to a Minecraftian end for your kids and their friends, they’re all still innovative tools that you can pull out in a pinch to spark your children’s interest in engineering, programming, or general computing for their road ahead.