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In another post I mentioned the completely wonderful Snap Circuits Electronics Kit by Elenco. Here I want to go into a little more detail on that, and on another one, also sold by Elenco, called the Maxitronixs 500-in-One Electronic Project Lab.

It may seem a little premature to be teaching a five year old electronics, but Leo and I have been working with the Snap Circuits kits since he was … well, certainly before he was potty trained, which must have been two years ago, and we were almost certainly doing it before that. And by now he understands a little about short circuits, voltage, resistance, load, diodes, batteries, and many other electronics concepts. Sure, he’s not solving Kirchhoff equations and doesn’t have an electrical engineer’s understanding of these concepts, but he is building things himself that really work, and is always very excited about it.

First more about Snap Circuits. This kit is basically just a bunch of building block components that … well … snap together. I highly recommend getting the SC-750R Student Electronics Training kit as it is very complete, and comes in a convenient storage box.

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The SC-750R almost completely encompasses all the separate smaller Snap Circuit kits (except for those that have special-purpose parts, like their Rover kit, which is probably also very cool, but much more limited).

Here’s the Potty Train thing that Leo and I built from this kit when he was potty training:

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The best part of the SC-750R Student Electronics Training kit is that it comes with literally hundreds of non-trivial projects, laid out very nicely — and easily enough that even the most complex ones can be done by … well, by a 5.5 year old.

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Admittedly, when Leo was 2 or 3, I had to help him a lot, but now I only help him where the diagram is obscure, and he’s always very excited when circuits that he puts together himself work, even really simple ones.

One thing to note, as exemplified in the page I’ve included above: Some of the circuits “cheat” by using black-box ICs to do somewhat complex parts of the circuit. For example, the top diagram is an AM radio built entirely of basic components, whereas the FM radio on the bottom half of the page is built using an integrated tuner and amp. This isn’t a big deal to a five year old, of course, but to me it detracts a little from the learning experience. To their credit, of course, this also makes much more complex circuits possible, so there’s a tradeoff, and I think that they made it extremely well. Also, a nearly equivalent circuit to most of the ICs is actually built from the basic components elsewhere in the books; it’s just that they don’t have enough copies of components, or room on the snap circuit board to do both, and it would make the circuit at hand too complex. Indeed, if I were really trying to train an EE on this, of course, you would use components for these things anyway.

My only real complaint about the Snap Circuits kit is that there’s no index to the manual, so you can’t find a project that you might want to do, for example, using a particular component. However, you can download the manuals in searchable PDF here.

Not that this detracts in the least little bit from the fun that Leo has, here’s a video of him dancing to the radio he built!

Okay, on to the Maxitronixs 500-in-One kit.

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This is a MUCH more serious bread-boarding kit, including a CPU that you program directly in assembler! (Actually, you enter the instructions in HEX…Really!) This is way too complex for anyone under 5; and indeed, we’re at the point with this kit that Leo and I were a couple of years ago with the Snap Circuits. Partly we have mostly been playing with that one, and less with this one, but it’s really much harder for a bunch of reasons.

First, the diagrams are much harder to understand. Also, there are actual components that you have to literally breadboard, and just the manipulation of these is much harder for a young child. In fact, although Leo can put the wires between the spring clips, he really doesn’t have the dexterity to insert components into the breadboard without bending the leads, so I have to do that for him.

Here’s an example of one of the projects:

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It’s worth taking a careful look at the page above. Note that there is some lightweight explanation on the left (box on the left page), the circuit diagram (really the breadboard diagram) on the left of the righthand page, the program, including comments (which is really great!), and the flow chart. Taken together this really is a terrifically well done kit.

Also, the programming interface is extremely clunky. Don’t get me wrong…it could be a lot worse … we could be toggling things in in binary on a front panel! (I’ve done plenty of that in my misspent youth!) So, really at 5 we’re just getting started with this kit. But Leo is really really excited about it, and as with Snap Circuits, the manual is terrific. Leo’s had binary down for a while, and flowcharting, and this is giving him hex, as well as a really good sense of how a real embedded CPU works.

The only thing that I can complain about about the Maxitronix kit is that when you power it down, the program is lost. I understand that it would be complex to do anything more complex than that, but it’s somewhat frustrating to have just spent an hour entering 50 lines of assembly (really machine language!) through the clunky keyboard interface, just to have to do it again if you decide to set it aside for an hour, or change the batteries.

More practice, I guess. 🙂