Saturday, March 8, 2014
By KJ Dell'Antonia
There’s lots of online love for the GoldieBlox commercial (hat tip to Katy Waldman at Slate), with its Rube Goldberg use of dozens of pink toys and renegade rewrite of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” song:
You think you know what we want, GIRLS
Pink and pretty it’s GIRLS
Just like the 50s it’s GIRLS
You like to buy us pink TOYS
And everything else is for BOYS
And you can always get us DOLLS
And we’ll grow up like them… FALSE!
You have to love the message, and many people love the toy, the book and the idea behind them as well.
But what else is out there in fun building, engineering and robotics gifts for girls (and boys) who want to open a present on Hanukkah or Christmas that they can do something with, especially if they’re a little past the GoldieBlox stage? There’s a little list of gifts for boys going around on Facebook accompanied by a general sense that “girls are easier to buy for.” Girls might like a fuzzy pink pillow to add to their décor – but mine, at least (now 8 and 9, with brothers who are 8 and 12), want to rip open a box and start something. Getting a sparkly sweater while their brother is putting the batteries in something infuriates them. Here are 10 ideas for putting some materials, tools or code in your favorite girl’s hands this year (and they work for boys as well).
Roominate Dollhouse Kit: Yes, you can build a little two-story dollhouse for the small plastic creatures of your choice. But how will they get up to the second floor? With your motorized pulley-operated elevator. Then they can wait while you design them a slide to get down.
LittleBits: Tiny circuit boards that snap together with magnets: Make an alarm clock, a hopping bunny, or a light-up whale-shaped tissue box that wags its tail. Or, obviously, anything you can think of.
SnapCircuits: We’ve had a variety of these kits, from the basics to the remote control rover (not available on their website, but easy to find). They’re not toys that see constant use, but they come out again and again, and my children have consistently been able to get their circuits working, much to their delight.
Lego Mindstorms: I am an unabashed fan of Lego, and our family loves Lego in all its forms – Lego, Lego Creator, Lego Architect and Lego Friends. No matter what the kit was meant to create, within a few days it has morphed into something entirely different, and no one seems to notice if the bricks are pink or blue. Mindstorms takes Lego to a different level. Kids get a programmable heart and robot instructions, and – with enough time, determination and (fun) effort – the ability to create something that does everything from shooting Lego missiles to spying on your brother. Mindstorms is the program used in the FIRST Lego League, which my oldest son and daughter did together this year – and their team of six won a prize for teamwork and cooperation. Robotics and sibling cooperation? I’d say sign me up, but I already did.
Soldering kit: You can buy these just about anywhere (here’s one at Make Magazine’s online store). I picked up three last year and my father taught my oldest son and daughter (and me) to solder. My daughter (then 8) outshone us all.
The Make Electronics Kit: Go beyond soldering and into serious electronics with Charles Platt’s Make: Electronics book, which adult geeks everywhere have told me is the gold standard for electronics explanations and projects. But the problem with a book of projects is always that you don’t have the stuff on hand, and by the time you’ve mustered up a trip to Radio Shack, you’ve lost steam. Go all out for the kit, and you’ll have everything you need (although the trip to Radio Shack would be cheaper).
Kodu: Got an XBox, or is one in your holiday giving plans? We don’t, but I’ve heard (and read) great things about Kodu, a visual programming language that allows kids to create their own video games on the XBox or a PC. If you’ve got one, add the book “Kodu for Kids: The Official Guide to Creating Your Own Video Games” to your list. It’s an inexpensive way (about $5 on the Xbox Indie Games channel) to transform that Xbox into an entirely different tool.
Bigshot Camera Kit: No doubt your daughter knows how to use a digital camera. But does she know how it works? Could she MacGyver one up with nothing but some sand and some software? Probably not, but she could build one with the Bigshot kit, and learn how the image sensor measures the light to convert it to a digital image.
Arduino Robot: Arduino is an open-source physical computing platform that allows users to write software that controls a physical board. The Arduino robot has two fully programmable Arduino boards, one for its motors, one for sensors and operations, that can communicate via USB with a computer. The tech-inclined family could blow a holiday budget (and the holiday vacation) on getting started with Arduino, then move up to the robot; kids who are already familiar with Arduino would be thrilled with this new way to use it. Remember how everything you did with a computer growing up required reboots and re-jiggering and losing your work and trying again? That’s the gift of Arduino (and its kin, Raspberry Pi) – the chance to figure it out.
MaKey MaKey: Ready for something a little more complicated than SnapCircuits, but not quite Arduino robot material? The MaKey MaKey kit uses alligator clips to make anything into a computer key. Why would you want to recreate a keyboard out of alphabet soup letters, or make a banana piano? Because you can – exactly the message we want our daughters and our sons to hear.
Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at: