If you’re not into electronics, they may seem a little advanced or silly or you might just “not get it”. Doing things with electronics, for some people, are one of those obsessively fun things kids can end up doing that could lead to a career, sometimes without collage of any kind if they’re public enough about their projects. It doesn’t have to be expensive and the internet is rife with information on projects with differing difficulty. Electronics only seem hard when you don’t know, the principles of electronics are really very simple and even a 3 year old can start learning the basics. I’ll rank these kits simplest to more complex and put age recommendations on them so you can kinda get an idea of which one to buy, I’d still play with them all so don’t worry too much about them being too simple.
Age: 3-12 (3 with supervision obviously, be a smart parent.)
Squishy circuits are play-dough electronics, no joke. You take some electronics, hook them together with play-dough, plug in a battery, and viola! People all over the internet report they’ve used commercial off the shelf play-doh, I’ve only ever used this recipe, Squishy Circuits with Play-Doh, the salt in the clay makes it conductive. Needs to stay wet to stay conductive, unfortunate, permanent circuits are out of the race with this option. I’d recommend this for 3-7 ish age. In this personal blog post a few years ago I make a battery with playdough, aluminum foil and coins. These are VERY safe, absolutely zero chance of you’re kid electrocuting themselves with this kit even if they ate it while its turned on. The small parts with pokey wires ARE swallowable, so if your kid DOES eat the parts… you might want to check with your doctor, as far as I’m aware little pokey pieces of metal and kid intestines are not friends. Older kids will enjoy this as well I expect (I still do) but I’d recommend pushing older kids towards more advanced kits if they’re interested in electronics.
The squishy circuits kit is a bit overpriced, but its for first timers so if YOU don’t know anything about electronics, I’d get that. For super cheap you could get a lot more. If you’re not familiar with LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes), these are little lights that will work for a long time with just a few batteries. One of the tricks to these LEDs, for the uninitiated, is that they only work one direction, so if you hook up the battery and it doesn’t work, turn the LED around. You can buy LEDs and LiPo batteries for them very cheap. A fun and possibly problematic project to make with these, add some magnets and make some throwies.
Ya need a noise maker. Especially if this gift is not for YOUR kid, it is an unwritten tradition to buy the most annoyingly loud toy with the hardest to find battery compartment and on/off switch (preferably no on off switch). Well these batteries will be super easy to take out, but we do what we can… for tradition. Fortunately these kinds of noise makers are usually used as alarms, so they’re are SUPER loud and annoying. This is the quietest one I could find on Amazon that will probably run on 2 AA batteries, its probably a little louder than a vacuum cleaner, depending on your vacuum. If you buy it for your kid let me know how much you regret buying it in the comments, if you buy it for someone elses let me know how long it is before they take your calls again. You can’t plug in just any old speaker to make noise, you need the electronics that tell the speaker what noise to make, and that’s just way beyond this level of electronics, this speaker has all that complexity built in and works when you connect it to enough batteries. More batteries will be louder. (Too many batteries may let the smoke out, the smoke is supposed to stay in the device. If the smoke comes out it may not work afterwards.)
3v fan motor, this guy costs about 3 times what I was looking for so if you find any 3 volt fans with exposed leads, let me know. This fan should work with 1 or 2 AA batteries. There are two reasons for a fan and not just a motor. Its hard to see a motor turning and unless you build the motor into something, its kinda boring. The fun reason is if you can blow the fan fast enough it will act as a generator and light up an LED. Nearly ALL forms of energy production (excluding solar panels) generate heat to make steam to turn a turbine (a fan) to generate electricity, nuclear power, coal power, gas power. A damn uses water flowing through a turbine to generate electricity. Your car keeps your car battery charged by turning a generator (a motor used in reverse) to charge the battery when your car is running. Motors and generators are used everywhere.
Sci-Supply 1.5V to 3V DC Miniature Motor with 24″ Alligator Connecting Wire Leads and Plastic Fan, Alternator Wind Power Turbine Demo, Simple Circuits
In updating this page I found Amazon now has a lot more and some much cooler stuff. For twice as much you can get the fan, with a few more fans, a few more motors, some wheels, gears, belts, wires, etc. I’m recommending this alternative, this is SOOO much more awesome. I know, I’m still a child inside. (Never grow up more than enough to fund you childhood dreams.)
EUDAX 6 set Rectangular Mini Electric 1.5-3V 24000RPM DC Motor with 84 Pcs Plastic Gears,Electronic wire, 2 x AA Battery Holder ,Boat Rocker Switch,Shaft Propeller for DIY Science Projects
This book really has nothing to do with electronics, its more about the idea of making something, comes with stickers. A young kid doesn’t separate making things into electronics, coloring and cardboard robots. No, we do that when we become old and indoctrinated with lack of imagination. Even though this isn’t electronics, it applies.
Welcome to Your Awesome Robot
Age 7 & up (7 might be a little young for half this kit, but you can learn and do the harder parts with them.)
Once your kid understands electronics well, this is the kit to get for them. You might want to give them the simplest portions first and the more expensive easy to break parts when they get better and show they know what they’re doing. I’ve broken so many random things by playing with electronics I really didn’t understand. My families first computer. What? You can’t plug random electronics into computers and have them magically do awesome things?! I didn’t tell my dad for 20 years. This is cheap and has enough complex parts to last to adulthood, for real.
The Arduino is that bigger electronics board in the kit above, and on the cover of the book below. This board is literally a computer, which means you have to write an run programs on it to have it do anything. There are many varieties of Arduino computers, but they mostly have the same basic set of components and are mostly compatible. There is a ridiculous amount of info on how to use Arduino online, if you’re kid is good at teaching themselves off the internet they may not need this book, but its a decent starting place either way.
Age: 5 & up
Maybe your kid isn’t picking up how electronics work, but they still want to make cool shtuff, there’s an app for that. LittleBits are expensive as all getup, but ridiculously easy to use, even you could do it, fureels. These are hard to break by hooking them up wrong and pretty much just do what you’d expect when you connect them together. That’s the reason they are so expensive, each littleBit is super smart, so you don’t have to be. They’ve got a bunch of different kits available, but the freestyle kits with all the individual parts have gotten so expensive I can’t recommend them in good conscience. If you’ve got the millionaire money to loose these things in the couch cushions, they are awesomely fun!
I wasn’t sure if squishy circuits would work with Play-doh brand play dough, so for Easter we put some playdoh, LEDs, and lithium coin batteries in some plastic eggs. My 3 year old daughter never did figure out how to make a clay circuit, but she did figure out how to light up the LEDs by herself. The playdoh has a higher resistance than I remember the homemade stuff having. It took two 3v lithium coin batteries to light up the LEDs, purple had the hardest time, red and yellow lit up the best.