I’m always on the lookout for cool toys that can empower my kids (9, 6 and 2yo) to be creative and break the mold of being just consumers of other’s ideas.
I recently came across littleBits while watching a TED video of their creator. I was immediately hooked. It seemed like the perfect blend of simplicity and self-learning that I was looking to get my kids into electronics. So I went ahead and purchased the kit from SparkFun and a bunch of standalone parts ("bits") from the site itself. There are also a bunch of videos and pictures on their site to get a better idea of what they are, as well as multitude YouTube videos.
This weekend I gave them to my kids, and coincidentally, we also travelled to my hometown and they got to share them too with their cousins.
Man, what a blast it was! I decided to approach this "toy" just like one of the iPod/iPad games I buy for them: "How it’s used? I’ve no idea! I just heard it was great, you go figure it out!". And figure it out they did.
They spent the entire weekend trying out different combinations, together on a table, 3 to 5 kids between 6 and 12 alternating, collaborating and sharing their discoveries of what pieces worked with others, speculating why, and so on. I provided some explanations when asked, but it was very much self-directed learning. I was mostly giving them names for the things that they already knew how they worked.
I strongly recommend watching the short TED presentation by littleBits creator. The basic idea was to come up with a Lego-style set of building blocks to learn how electronics work. The greatest thing about this approach is that it requires no soldering whatsoever: you just snap together the little blocks and magnets do the work of ensuring you don’t connect them in the wrong direction. This allows for immediately feedback on the functioning of the circuits and their combinations, unlike the soldering-based kits. It’s also much cleaner than the breakout board-based ones. No programming is required, although its creator hinted at a programmable module down the road, which seems to me like the logical next step once you master the basic hardware based logic gates.
You can buy the modules individually or in a kit. The kit is very small to be of use for such a large group, but it may be ok for a single kid. I decided to complement the kit with additional sensors and logic modules.
Since I knew I wanted a group of 3 or 4 kids to be able to play together (I’m planning on selling the idea to buy these toys to my kids’ school), the first thing was to decide on the power, to enable multiple ongoing experiments at a time. Initially I thought the rechargeable flat watch-style battery module would be the most useful.
It turned out to have far too little power for a lengthy playing session. They were exhausted in about 30′ I’d say. They also cannot power the more energy-savvy motors and fans, so kids were quickly complaining about why they didn’t work. The 9v battery module turned out to be much better, but the battery was not rechargeable and the recharging cycle for one also wouldn’t be quick enough for them:
The best one was the micro-USB module, which I just plugged to the car power while traveling, and to a regular phone charger while at home.
I think it will be the most used form of energy for this, since they usually kept the modules running for a long time while trying other alternatives before plugging them in. To cut the cord when needed, it was also very useful to have the Sanyo recharging battery which was used also with the same micro-USB module:
In order to draw power from a single module to multiple paths (one for each kid or group), I used a fork combined with prolonging cable modules:
This battery did have enough juice for all 3-4 branches of circuits, each containing 3-5 LEDs and a one or two motors and fans, and it worked for hours.
They had lots of fun trying to figure out how the logic modules worked, and which combinations “worked”.
It was very collaborative as they built fragments of circuits, tested them separately and they tried to plug them all together and see if everything would still “light up”.
By far the most successful modules were:
- LED (green)
- RGB LED: you can vary the color component with a plastic screwdriver that comes with each of these modules
- Pulse: this was a favorite, not sure why
- Bargraph: an analog component that turns on more LEDs the more energy that passes through it
- Pressure sensor: used to drive the bar, but also as a switch
- Fans, motors and vibration motor modules
- Button or toggle switch
- Roller switch
We couldn’t find a good use for the Timeout, and we couldn’t figure out the difference between the Fork and the Branch (aside from their shape). From the logic gates, inverter and OR where most used, and you probably don’t need more than one of each kind, maybe 2 or 3 inverters. Fork was very useful to allow for more complicated designs spanning multiple modules, joined with OR or AND gates.
All in all, it was one of the best purchases I made for a toy. It’s still quite expensive, and I certainly hope to see its price come down to around $5 per module max, considering you need about 20 per kid to make it interesting. I believe they have a good chance of becoming the next Legos of electronics.