a list of gifts for young makers

Some of my friends have been asking me to make a list of cool toys/kits I’ve come across related to making, tinkering, and engineering. There are likely many other gadgets out there but I am only including those I have personally played with. I am also not including the “classics” like LEGOs, Tinkertoys, K’nex, etc because I assume most people already know about these.

For the most part, I think most of these toys would be appropriate for elementary and middle school kids (and if I think otherwise, I make a note of it). And hey, older kids might like playing with them too — I know I do!! For younger children, some of the kits might require adult help. But also know that I teach girls from grades 6-12 and don’t have kids of my own, so my opinions have not been exactly tested with younger children.

So without further ado, here is a sort-of “gift guide,” just in time for your holiday shopping, I hope!


  • GoldieBlox – Well-designed construction sets that would appeal to kids who like to read because you build along with the storybook.
  • Makedo – There is something so wonderfully simple about these kits, which really are just little tools and connectors for constructing with cardboard. Cardboard not provided but hey, we all get plenty of that stuff all the time, right?
  • Imagination Supply Co – In full disclosure, this is a company co-founded by my colleague at school. At the same time, that means I’ve seen how these building kits were developed and even seen them tested with the students. After building, kids can do all sorts of things to customize them – hey, why not add some lights and such using paper circuits?!
  • Roominate – Build dollhouses, wire them up with lights, fans, and other moving parts, and design furniture for the houses.


  • littlebits – Magnetic snap-together blocks for exploring circuits and interactive devices. Think of them as the electronics version of LEGOs. This passes my favorite rule-of-thumb of “low barrier, high ceiling” in that it is super easy to make something work but the possibilities are nearly endless when you dive deeper into it. Especially with the newer stuff like their Arduino bit, CloudBit, the Smart Home Kit and the Synth kit, there is something for everyone.
  • Circuit Stickers – If you’ve read any of the previous posts recently, you know that I love paper circuits and basically have a not-so-secret crush on Jie Qi. These stickers were co-developed by her and the starter kit comes with a super adorable sketchbook with such activities as lighting up a jar with a firefly in it!
  • LightUp – Like littlebits, these are magnetic blocks for exploring circuits. The advantage they have over littlebits is that their representation of circuits is a lot more realistic (you see the actual loop created by the parts) and they actually allow you to make mistakes, i.e. wire up LEDs backwards to learn about how LEDs have polarity. Lest you think this would be annoying, they also developed an augmented-reality iOS app to help you visualize current flow and debug circuits. And it looks like they have added programmable parts to their repertoire – haven’t played with these myself but sounds super cool!
  • Circuit Scribe (conductive ink) – The basis of these kits is the conductive ink that allows you to literally draw out your circuits! I have not tested out this exact brand myself (I have tried out Bare Conductive’s version) but have heard good things about Circuit Scribe.
  • Roominate – Build dollhouses, wire them up with lights, fans, and other moving parts, and design furniture for the houses.

Physical Computing

In general, these would be better for older kids because they require programming. There are ways to make these more accessible to younger kids by using blocks-based programming and adding shields and I have tried to mention these here as well.

  • Makey Makey – Turn anything into an input for your computer from people to fruit to buckets of water! This may not sound like much but you can get seriously creative with even just this simple technology. You don’t have to program to use it (just plug it in and design your own game controller out of bananas, for example) but it plays really well with Scratch also.
  • Hummingbird kits – These are the kits I’ve been recommending to schools all over the place due to the fact that it’s easy to get started with them. They make adding movement to projects really simple and you can program in a variety of languages, from visual, blocks-based languages like Snap (a variant of Scratch) to Python, Java, and Processing.
  • Lilypad kits, FLORA, and GEMMA – All are platforms for exploring e-textiles/soft circuits/wearables.¬† If you need a specific project to start with, how about this cute kit for adding sound to a plush toy?
  • Arduino – Super powerful physical computing platform used by everyone from electronics hobbyists to installation artists. Definitely more for older kids unless you add on shields and parts from systems like Grove or TinkerKit.
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a resource page for paper circuits

One of my absolute favorite making projects is paper circuits. They¬† are cheap, simple, don’t require any fancy equipment or supplies, and easily adaptable to all sorts of contexts and interests. Once people get the gist of how to make a simple paper circuit, there are many directions they can go: make more complicated circuitry, create interactive stories or posters, incorporate paper circuits into origami or sculptures, etc. The possibilities are nearly endless!

A very basic activity is to make a light-up greeting card or to “bling” out a notebook with a paper circuit on the cover. And Jie Qi, a former(?) grad student at MIT Media Lab’s High Low Tech group, who has done a bunch of work on paper circuits, has recently released a fun Circuit Stickers kit based on the ideas of paper circuitry. While Circuit Stickers are likely not feasible in a classroom setting, they would be fun to buy as toys for kids to play with at home.

Jie also is the one who created the most incredible and lovely interactive painting using paper circuits.

Interactive Light Painting: Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) from Jie Qi on Vimeo.

At a conference recently, I saw a fabulous application of paper circuits from the folks at the Exploratory where everyone collaborated on a paper circuit mural. The main difference here is that someone preps a large surface ahead of time with a positive rail and a negative rail (hint: use copper tape for one and aluminum foil for the other to easily tell them apart), hooks them up to battery pack(s) for power, and then gives everyone the materials to create paper circuit pieces to add to the mural. Pieces can be attached using pushpins or magnets, depending on what the backing of the mural is.Exploratory Paper Circuits Exploratory Paper Circuits Recorder

Useful links:

  • Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio‘s main project page for paper circuits has great examples, suggestions on where to buy supplies, and a PDF activity guide.
  • The Tinkering Studio wrote a blog entry on paper circuits that has great tips on facilitation strategies and common challenges.
  • High-Low Tech group’s site has an online tutorial and a one page handout with templates and materials list, including part numbers for Digikey, which is a cheap vendor for electronics materials.
  • The fabulous Lindsey Own, who ran a workshop session on alternative circuits with Jenny Howland at the professional development event we ran back in June, has a nice blog entry with tips and tricks for working with paper circuits.

Tips & tricks:

  • Any 3V coin cell batteries will work. I usually buy CR2032 because I can use them for other things too and I like that they’re pretty flat.
  • For the most part, I use regular two-legged LEDs but I have since learned about using surface mount LEDs for tiny lights that lay flatter on the page or LEDs with axial leads for easier wiring.
  • Copper tape can be bought from hardware stores as snail tape or EMI shielding tape from electronics stores. Tinkering Studio has some tips on which brands are best.
  • Instead of taping down the leg of an LED onto the paper, first lay down a piece of copper tape. Put the leg on top and then tape that down with another smaller piece of copper tape. This will ensure that the metallic leg of the LED has good contact with the shiny, more-conductive side of the copper tape.
  • As much as possible, avoid creating circuit paths with multiple pieces of tape and instead, turn corners with one piece of tape. This will ensure good current flow.

Stuff to buy:

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