A Box Full of Awesome

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 31, 2008 1:55 am

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.

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  • Greg

    Here in New Zealand it’s called “BrainBox” and my 5-year-old did indeed get a set for Christmas.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I have a similar thing when I was a kid too, those are awesome. The one I have can have amps blocks and antenna blocks so you can build radios.

  • Pineyman

    My 8yo son got a second set this Christmas. His first was 2 years ago. He loves building with them. He is starting to move on the trying to figure out his own circuits. Thank heavens I have an EE degree….

  • George Musser

    Here’s something that has been a hit with my daughter this year: http://www.thinkgeek.com/geektoys/science/91e4/

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Ha, I gave that to my nephew last year. When I was a kid, I loved getting various forms of science kits, but would just play with the contents randomly, never bothering to read instructions to learn what I was supposed to do. Some things never change.

  • http://notes.kateva.org John Faughnan

    Hey, I was going to write about SC! :-) .

    The really bizarre thing is that this is a great product with a terrible web site. They have marketing issues.

    The kit doesn’t provide the kind of explanations parents want to help teach what’s going on. (Physicists know all that stuff so don’t need ‘em).

    You can buy the student manuals from the web site but you typically need 2-3 manuals, depending on the kit (standard plus extensions). They explain more. You can also download some PDF documentation. The manuals are a bargain, but they’re damned hard to find.

    It’s hard to explain what a mess the web sites are (yes, plural, different domains, some odd relationship to a retail outlet, school focused vs. end-user, incomplete descriptions, etc).

    All I can guess is that Snap Circuits is produced by an eccentric pair of aged EEs who are brilliant but completely clueless about marketing and the web! They need to engage a local high school student to clean things up!

  • rob

    i had a “100 in one” kit when i was a kid:

    http://www.samstoybox.com/toys/ElectronicProjectKits.html

    it has the components mounted permanently in a nice wood box with spring terminals to make interconnections. i loved it. i don’t have my original one, but i did get one from a friend in college. i still have that one.

    the snap circuits seems great in that the actual circuit is laid out so it matches the actual circuit diagram. nice. the 100 in one kit has all the components fixed in the box, so wires run all over willy-nilly. makes it harder to trouble shoot circuits, but there are a whole lot more components with which to make stuff.

  • Luke

    I saw a review on the US News web site that said that the product was aimed at kids 8 and older. I have a little cousin who will be turning 5 in April. Will she be too young to appreciate this toy?

  • http://www.theory.caltech.edu/~preskill John Preskill

    I’m impressed that five-year-old kids really play with it. I used to put together “Knight Kits” (a competitor with Heath Kits), but not until I was eight or nine. My fingers were constantly burned by the soldering iron and I blew up a few capacitors.

    But you had to read and follow the instructions if you wanted the thing to work. Otherwise you would miss some of the biggest thrills: the vacuum tubes lighting and warming for the first time, or “breaking the iron curtain” (as we used to say) by picking up a short-wave broadcast from eastern Europe, in a strange language you couldn’t understand.

    I don’t recall learning much about circuits, though. If there was a section of the instructions explaining how the thing worked, I probably just skipped over that part.

  • Julianne

    Five year olds can enjoy it with adult help (or the help of a bossy older sibling). For the littlest kids it can function as a simple pattern matching exercise — there’s a picture showing what the completed circuit should look like, and the kid can just match up the pieces until the circuit does something. Kids who can read a little bit will probably have an easier time with it. Don’t expect the kid to be thrilled when they open it, but after they play with it once, they’ll likely be hooked.

    I actually live in fear of the marketing folks getting ahold of this. If they sell it to Mattel, it’ll be repackaged with an earnest little boy on the cover, in color shades of grey, green, and brown.

  • http://planetary.org/blog Emily Lakdawalla

    Thanks so much for this review — I have been ogling these kits in museum stores for years, but haven’t yet taken the plunge. I think this falls into the (embarassingly large) category of “Things I will buy ‘for my kid’ because I want to play with them.” Do you think a toddler would enjoy what these kits do if an adult is playing with them? At my dad’s house over Christmas I dug my old Capsela set out of the attic and my 2.5-year-old had fun chasing the fan-powered cars etc. across the living room.

  • http://www.lowell.edu/users/crockett/ Christopher

    Is it sad that I’m 31 and wouldn’t mind getting one for myself? :-) I guess I *am* a geek…

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist Isis the Scientist

    That is a thing of beauty, right there!

  • Kaleberg

    I had something like this as a kid as well. We used to play a game in which we’d make a radio or detector or music synthesizer. Then we’d take turns removing wires until it stopped working. Once it stopped working, you put that last wire back and the other guy had a go. The last one to remove a wire was the winner. It was sort of like the Bush administration, except that they didn’t bother putting the last wire back in.

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  • jenna

    holy moly! is it embarrassing to admit i’d love to have that? even as a graduate student? in physics? :)

    i would have peed my pants with happiness if someone had got me that when i was a little gal. i loved magnetics kits and legos. somehow at birthdays i always got nothing but barbies and hair doodads, though, so my dad and mom had to donate those to goodwill and got me the cool stuff on their own.

  • Mark B

    SnapCircuits are awesome! I used them last year with a high school class I worked with two days a week. They were developed, in part, by the Boston Museum of Science for their “Engineering the Future” curriculum, which is a very interesting take on middle school/early high school science education.

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