Friday, 23 June 2017

Microprocessor Beginner Boards and Kits for Kids and Teens

In the last few years loads of awesome beginner microprocessor boards have appeared on the market. There are loads of choices for getting kids started with programming hardware and physical computing. We love this stuff! It enables kids to learn useful tech skills and also useful design skills as they make gadgets that make sense to them.

Beginner microcontroller or microprocessor boards can be used to create custom wearables and electronic gadgets. The often include inputs, outputs and sensors on the board or make it really easy to plug them in. This removes a lot of the complexity of soldering or working with a tangle of wires on a breadboard. The focus is much more on what you can do with the device.

We've tried lots of these boards now so it's time for a roundup so you can pick the best board for your child or their next project.

Tech Will Save Us Mover Kit - Age 8+

The Tech Will Save Us Mover Kit is a really simple and easy to use board which can be programmed by kids aged 8 and up (and with a bit of help even younger kids too.)

The Mover Kit is a wearable device that can be worn on a child's wrist or attached to a lanyard. It can also be clipped onto scooters and bikes. 

The Mover Kit has 8 colour LEDs and can detect movement. It's programmed in a simple drag and drop environment in a web browser. 

We love that the Mover Kit has been so well designed to remove a lot of the trouble spots in creating projects. A rechargeable battery is built in so you don't have to worry about power or how to attach a battery pack to your projects. The accessories for turning the Mover Kit into a wearable make it really easy to create an actual working project in a timescale that works for younger kids.

Strengths: Rechargeable battery, Fab for little kids, Awesome design and wearable options
Not so good: It's not a cheap device. It's functionality is limited so it's best for little kids. Can't add additional hardware.

The micro:bit - Age 8 through to adult

The micro:bit is a UK-based device which packs tons of features into a small programmable computer. It has now been released in the US and Canada.

The micro:bit is now widely available to buy for use at home or school. The new MakeCode PXT editor makes coding with blocks or JavaScript really accessible.

A ScratchX extension has recently been announced. You can also program the micro:bit using Python code.

The micro:bit is packed with sensors and has Bluetooth and radio communication. It's also really extensible via attaching things to its 3 main pins or using an extension board to get access to lots more pins. 

Strengths: Choice of editors, tons of features, extensibility. More and more resources are becomong available. It's cheap.
Not so good: No support for rechargeable batteries, the 5x5 LED matrix is a bit limited (but constraints encourage creativity. Not available internationally yet, but the list of countries is growing. 

AdaFruit Circuit Playground (Express)

The Circuit Playground from Adafruit is an Arduino compatible board with 10 RGB neopixels and lots of sensors built it. It has 8 pads that you can connect to with crocodile clips. You can use the pads as capacitative touch inputs that turn conductive objects into inputs which is lots of fun.

The Circuit Playground Express is an upcoming version of the board which can be programmed using a MakeCode editor similar to the micro:bit one. This makes coding really easy to get started with. You can also program it with Python as well as Arduino.

Note: The Circuit Playground Express is currently in developer edition so it's not quite ready for general use. If buying, check carefully which version you want.

Strengths: Pretty! Capacitative touch is lots of fun. Has a speaker on board. Affordable. HID support. 
Not so good: It's not quite ready! No way to display text. No on-board wireless capability.

Jewelbots - Age 7-14

Jewelbots are small wearable friendship bracelets that can be programmed with the Arduino editor or using an app. Jewelbots can communicate with other nearby Jewelbots so kids can send messages to each other. Jewelbots have coloured LEDs and they can also vibrate. The communication capability means that Jewelbots are best used in groups of friends or siblings. 

Strengths: Strong girl appeal
Not so good: Limited inputs and outputs

Quirkbot - Age 8+

Quirkbot is a microprocessor board with a built in rechargeable battery (there aren't many of these around.) It's designed to work with Strawbees straw connectors to create robotics projects. But you can use it without Strawbees too. 

The Quirkbot has a pad on the end of each of it's legs that can be used as a touch input or to connect additional electronics. You can also attach a straw. 

You can easily add a servo to add movement to your project. 

Quirkbot has a graphical editor that runs in a web browser. 

Strengths: Built in rechargeable battery. Comes with a project kit with compatible hardware.
Not so good: Few resources available

Let's Start Coding MakerBoard - Age 13+

The let's start coding MakerBoard offers an intermediate step towards working with full Arduino development boards. 

It's a small board that can be slotted into a connector board to attach additional hardware such as leds, neopixel strips and even an LCD screen. 

The Let's Start Coding kit includes a MakerBoard and accessories in a nicely presented storage box. What's fantastic about this kit is the educational resources that are available. There are lots of projects and lessons that teach beginners real Arduino coding in a browser-based editor. Code is provided for beginners to modify so that they don't have to spend lots of time typing the boring stuff before they can make things happen. 

Strengths: Strong curriculum and editor. Comes in a kit with additional hardware. 
Not so good: A bit bulky for wearable projects. 

Hackaball - Age 7+

Hackaball is a microcontroller board with lights sound and motion sensors that turns a throwable ball into a programmable toy or gadget. We've included it in this list as it's an interesting example of a company doing something a bit different in this space. It also has a rechargeable battery which is handy.

You can take the Hackaball board out of the ball so you can use it for other things too. The Hackaball is awesome for winter projects as it looks great in the dark.

Strengths: Rechargeable. It's a ball!
Not so good: Needs brighter LEDs for summer use. Limited availability. 


There's so much happening in this space. Microcontrollers are one of my favourite ways of working with kids and tech. It helps children understand how the gadgets around them actually work and encourages them to make projects that are relevant to them. 

Microcontrollers are also a great basis for projects that combine craft and tech which we love. 

There are lots of great options available now and your choice will depend on your budget, the experience of your child and the kind of projects that will appeal to them.

Can't decide? For an inexpensive beginner board for older kids and teens that has choice of programming languages and is widely available, the micro:bit is a great choice at the moment, especially now it's available in the US.

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