It's fairly easy to pick a holiday present, stick a bow on it and say "enjoy" when you give it to someone. It's tougher to give a gift that keeps on giving and challenges the mind.
Luckily, there are plenty of gift projects for "makers" -- from robot kits to programmable microcontrollers to musical instruments. The time is right to give the gift of making.
LittleBits ($99 basic kit, $149 premium kit):
LittleBits electronics kits are an attempt to engage young minds, without stickers of flowers or cartoon-themed flourish. The kits help kids get started on building powered things and customizing their creations. The kits come with modular components fixed to colored blocks that connect together. When sequenced right, they can do such things as shine, twirl and beep.
One Saturday afternoon, my neighbors' daughter quickly dug in to the basic littleBits kit. Within a half-hour, she had crafted a powered crawling device, which later morphed into a gizmo that would swing at ping pong balls her brother tossed at it.
Children like to incorporate things from their environment. Within a day the littleBits kit had morphed into a flashlight using a cardboard tube. Knowing how smart she is, cold fusion won't be far behind.
This kit succeeds where other child-themed robotics kits fall short: by giving lessons in the fundamentals of electricity, circuits, motion and sensors and letting the child add extras from their local environment.
I had fun with this kit myself. The build quality of the components is sturdy enough to withstand drops and the occasional attempt to connect modules the wrong way.
Best yet: littleBits is gender agnostic. In a world of pink toy aisles targeting girls, this is a welcome design.
Moog Etherwave Theremin Kit ($399):
If you've ever watched a 1950s science fiction film, you've likely heard a theremin. It's the instrument making that ooooo-eeeee-ahhhhh-waaaaah sound when the aliens are sneaking up behind the teens necking in the parking lot. It's also unusual because it is played without actually touching it.
I had to touch the Moog Etherwave Theremin to build it though, and I learned a lot in the process.
The kit consists of a few bags full of wires, screws, antennae and knobs (potentiometers really, to adjust signals that will eventually become sound). Also included is a gorgeous but unfinished wood cabinet to stuff all the electronics into once you've screwed, glued and soldered things into place.
In rough order, I spent a week staining and lacquering the cabinet, learning how to solder, measuring off angles with a carpenter's square and redoing a few steps I got wrong the first time around. Special thanks go to a friend and YouTube for lessons on some of the carpentry techniques. (continued...)
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