Computers · Education

Searching For The Perfect STEM Toy

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As Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape put it, “software is eating the world”. I’m a big believer that any amount of coding experience will put you light years ahead of someone who has no experience, regardless of the work. Even a tiny exposure to coding demystifies the modern world.

One of my favorite activities is programming with my kids. Often, it’s a couple of hours here or there. Maybe during the winter months when it’s freezing outside, or maybe during the late summer when soaring humidity makes us grateful for air conditioning.

One thing that I’ve found successful is mixing programming with simple hardware. My go-to for hardware is Adafruit. Not only does Adafruit sell great hardware kits, but they also have excellent tutorials and project guides that really hold your hand through the learning process. Even though my over-the-top enthusiasm may sound like I’m pushing their products, Adafruit has no referral program. I’m simply recommending them because they’re so awesome.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite programmable boards, the Circuit Playground.

Circuit Playground (a.k.a. Classic)

I first discovered the Circuit Playground in 2016. The Playground is powered by a simple micro USB cable or a AAA-battery pack. This round circuit board is loaded with fun, including:

  • Ten NeoPixels that display any rainbow color (16 million variations!)
  • 3-axis accelerometer for motion detection
  • Temperature sensor
  • Light sensor
  • Microphone
  • Speaker
  • 2 push buttons and 1 slide switch
  • 8 capacitance, touch inputs
  • I2C, UART, analog inputs, and more…

When I discovered the Circuit Playground, we were in the middle of fielding our second First Lego League team. If you’ve ever participated in FLL, you know how expensive it is. The annual team registration fee is $225! And that doesn’t even include the year’s challenge kit, which is another $75, nor $27 for shipping and handling! If you actually want to compete in a tournament (what’s the point, otherwise?), then you need to pay an additional tournament fee, ~$100. New teams can expect about $800 of costs. Even with the cost spread over four to six teammates, it’s still $130 to $200 per child for your first year. That’s pricey in my book. Oh, and that’s for one robot, which means someone is alway sitting idle while the others build and program the robot.

On the other hand, the Circuit Playground was only $20[1]! 

Yeah, so there’s no tournament like there is with FLL (a plus if I’ve ever seen one!). So if you’re seeking the external pressure of deadlines, FLL is probably still for you. In my mind, the Circuit Playground is a better gateway platform to programming.

The Circuit Playground can be programmed using the popular, open-source Arduino software, which uses a variant of C++. If you’ve never programmed, there is a learning curve, but totally surmountable. Because it’s on such a commonly used platform, there’s tons of reference code you can find online. I haven’t tried it yet, but I hear you can now program it using the popular Code.org.

Here are a couple projects to get you started:

Circuit Playground Express

A few years after releasing the first Circuit Playground, Adafruit released the Circuit Playground Express and rebranded their first Playground as the Classic. Most of the board was the same, with the following improvements:

  • Infrared receiver and transmitter, allowing two Express boards to communicate together
  • 2 MB of flash storage (the Classic has 32 KB, so this is a HUGE bump up!)

In addition, the Express is programmable using a variant of Python, called CircuitPython. This is huge! Not only is Python more forgiving and accessible than C++, but it’s also a common gateway language for computer science departments. If you have no experience programming or with Python, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Teach Your Kids To Code by Bryson Payne. It’s a very accessible introduction to coding.

When you plug the Express into your computer, it behaves a lot like an external hard drive, making it super simple to simply drag-and-drop your code and have it start running. You can write code for the Express using a wide variety of programs, including Mu (recommended), VS Code, or even a simple text editor like Notepad. And if you want, you can still program the Express using the Arduino IDE and C++.

At $25, the Express is slightly more expensive than the Classic. Because the Classic scratched the programming itch well enough, I held off on buying the Express until last December. Because of how easy CircuitPython is, I recommend the Express over the Classic.

Here are some Express-specific projects. We had a lot of fun building the Tilt Controlled Marble Maze last Christmas. It required a couple of $6 servos and some alligator wires. And a lot of cardboard cutting! Here’s some vide of our maze:

Circuit Playground Bluefruit

The next iteration of the Circuit Playground is the Circuit Playground Bluefruit. It has all the same features as the Express, except instead of infrared receiver and transmitter, it comes with Bluetooth Low Energy support. It costs the same as the Express: $25

I recently bought one for my 12 year-old daughter for her birthday and we’re still digging into the Bluetooth feature. I also got her a TFT Gizmo, a round circuit board that adds a bolt-on TFT Display to the Bluefruit. It’s nearly as expensive as the Bluefruit itself, but the screen will add a lot more opportunities for discovery. I’ll have more to report in the future.

Conclusion

If you want a great experience programming with your kids, the Circuit Playground series is where to start. There’s something exciting about having blinking lights, sound, and sensors to make programming come alive.

What’s your favorite STEM toy? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Hasta luego!

—–

[1] I write this today, the Circuit Playground Classic is on sale for $17.50.

4 thoughts on “Searching For The Perfect STEM Toy

  1. Thanks for the great post!

    I agree that teaching my kids to code will help them down the road, even if they don’t go into software development.

    I haven’t had much luck teaching my kids, though there is certainly an interest. I’ll check out this hardware/book/software on your recommendation!

      1. That is the exact kit that I bought my daughter for her birthday at the beginning of July. I substituted out the li-poly battery for a 3xAAA battery pack for safety. I can’t have her dropping the experiment into some water and burning the house down!

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