Saturday, December 3, 2016

"You might want to be a kid again when you see these toys" - December 2, 2016

Last time we talked about gifts for adults.  What about younger people fascinated with technology? What gifts can nurture an interest or spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM? 

Or best of all, show off the wonder of the world?

I’ll champion high tech gifts in a bit, but for showing off the wonders of the universe there is no better gift than a telescope. You can find entry-level telescopes starting at about $40.  I still recall my first view of the moon through a telescope as a life-shaping event. So much of what I had learned in school became much clearer.  Today, you can use a phone app to help point your telescope at planets and other celestial bodies.

Looking the other direction at the universe of life --in a drop of water-- is even easier today. There are microscopes that hook into a PC and let you manipulate them through software, as well as capture images.

Of course, links for these, and all the items we are going to talk about here are in this week’s Link Post at

For younger kids, there is the Code a Pillar, from Fisher-Price. It is a toy caterpillar. Kids build it by attaching its segments in different orders. For example, if the first segment is go forward, then the second is turn to the left, and the next is go forward, the caterpillar will move forward, turn and then move some more.  By playing, kids are learning the fundamentals of programming.

For the  Star Wars  fans, there is Sphero’s BB8 robot. Controlled from the phone, you can control your own piece of the Star Wars universe.

Doll houses have gone high tech with Barbi’s Hello Dream House. Children control it with over 100 voice commands to make the lights work, decorate for Christmas and even have the stairs turn into a slide.

The coolest technology gift I found this year is the Piper Computer Kit. It lets a person build a computer case and install a Raspberry Pi 3 computer along with sensors and peripherals.  When it is complete, they can play Minecraft on it. 

If you are the parent of an elementary or middle schooler, you are probably well acquainted with Minecraft, a kind of digital Legos. It is both a game and an environment where things can be built. There are additional instructions for builders to create a multitude of Minecraft-oriented projects.

There are also less expensive Raspberry Pi kits that let anyone build custom computers in various configurations.  This harkens to the late 1970s when experimenters built their own computers in the days before Apple, Atari and the TRS-80.

Once they have assembled their computer, they can program with various free tools.  There is even a Minecraft for Raspberry Pi and serious programming languages.

For Minecraft fans using regular PCs, there is an excellent entry-level programming language that makes use of the Minecraft environment.

A fun thing for aspiring filmmakers is the Stikbot Studio. Stikbots are little robotic-looking characters you can pose. The Studio includes a tripod for a smartphone and a greenscreen stage. Filmmakers can pose the characters in front of the greenscreen. A phone app lets them take an image and then after the kids change the Stikbot’s pose a bit, take another image. It combines the images into a movie, with the background green-screened in. Kids can do still-frame animation videos--the kind parents know from the old Gumby series on television.  I’ll put some sample videos in the link post.

Note: See some Stikbot videos in the post below this one.

And there is Google Cardboard. For just $15 and your smartphone, a child can get their first taste of virtual reality.

And if your child loves video games, you know how expensive that can get on the PC. Steam is an online service where kids can play some games for free, but also buy the latest games and download them to their PC. They frequently run sales. And you can buy Steam gift certificates to control their spending. There are no monthly fees.

And let's not forget the old-fashioned building sets like Legos, K’Nex, Fiddlesticks and Lincoln Logs — now again made of wood. 

There are still old-fashioned geology and chemistry sets, as well as magic sets, robot arms you can build, rocketry, drones and all sorts of activities to nurture new interests or build on existing ones.

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