Many older scientists and engineers grew up tinkering. Car engines were pulled, belts on washing machines were replaced, loose wires on toasters were soldered. Such experiences build a basic competence with the physical world, and develop an innate understanding that the devices around us are not powered by magic. For better or worse, however, gadgets have become both more electronic and more disposable, leaving few useful opportunities for fixing things. Moreover, many of us grew up in non-tinkering households, and even if we’d been raised during the glory days of Large Mechanical Devices Made of Steel, we wouldn’t have wound up tinkering ourselves. And finally, much of that tinkering was pretty clearly marked as a Guy Thing.
But, there is a possible cure. I give to you Snap Circuits.
This has to be one of the funnest, most accessible geeky kid’s toys ever. It completely takes away the overhead of electronics assembly, allowing even very little kids to assemble circuits well before you’d trust them with a soldering iron. All the pieces are color-coded in bright primary colors with the standard circuit notation imprinted on top. The projects are largely fun — things like driving a little motor that turns a fan blade, which, if you mount it upside down, eventually generates enough lift that it shoots off and sails up the ceiling. There’s no chance of exploding capacitors or burnt fingers (which I’m sure for some of you makes it completely un-fun, but we’re talking 5 year olds here). Instead, what kids get is fast understanding of how circuits work, at a level that they can understand and really enjoy.
On top of just being extremely cool, for some reason Snap Circuits seems to have way more cross-gender appeal than the old Heathkits. It somehow cracked the code of not seeming like a gender-coded toy. There are no pictures of kids on the package (male, white, or otherwise), and it’s brightly colored without being frilly. There is also no assumption of past apprenticeship, where one was supposed to have learned soldering and breadboard wiring from some older family member. As such, I know as many girls as boys who are enamored with Snap Circuits (and although I probably don’t hang with the most representative sample of kids ever, the Snap Circuits flickr pool seems to bear my impression out).
So, if you have a kid in your life and don’t mind being stigmatized as the adult who gives nerd presents, consider Snap Circuits.