DIY Toy Computers

DIY Toy Computers

By Sanjena Sathian

Kano Kit out of the sleeve
SourceCourtesy of


Deep breath: Drop that gifted-and-talented STEM-specialty pre-school application and give your kids a toy. A cute one.

By Sanjena Sathian

Sure, some parents get freaked out watching their 7-year-old with lightning-fast fingerpads acing Fruit Ninja on a tablet or iPad. But what’s really unsettling isn’t kids accumulating screen time – it’s that they might not get the true magic of the screen.

They should, though.

At least that’s the thinking behind a new gadget called Kano. As schools worldwide go mad for coding classes, a team of eight U.K.-based engineers and designers are sending a different message: There’s a different way to amp up to those Coursera and Code Academy classes, and it doesn’t start with a STEM-specialty preschool. You shouldn’t be playing what you can’t build yourself, says Kano team co-founder Alex Klein. And so they’ve designed a device that tries to make screen time not just smart but earned for kids (and interested adults too) by getting its users to build it, from the ground up.

You shouldn’t be playing what you can’t build yourself, say the Kano team.

Sure, it’s a toy, but it’s also one of the three top-funded design projects ever on Kickstarter — after the Pebble SmartWatch and EmotivInsight. The funding campaign ran for 30 days in November with a target goal of $100,000 — the team raised $1.5 million. With the Kickstarter money in the bank and a revved version of the product, Kano is taking pre-orders of the $129 kit that is scheduled to ship this summer.

Like all clever learning devices, the fun factor is balanced by a spoonful of work. Lego-level assembly is required. Step one: Build the computer — starting with the circuit board. Then comes the case, speaker and screen. Eh, alors: a computer! Functional enough to do everything a computer can do – surf, email, game and, we suppose, the less cutesy stuff too…

The source of the computing power lies in the Raspberry Pi circuit board (a $35 bare-bones computer popular among hackers and homegrown engineers), which isn’t new but has been whimsically packaged and made usable for newbies. (Don’t knock the whimsy. After all, Apple got its start by distributing skeletal systems to DIY-ers — until the sexy design lured the rest of us.)

Legions of 20- and 30-somethings who take tech for granted but don’t understand what’s behind the smarts.

Once you’re done with the relatively simple assembly, playtime gets more intense as you earn an “in” to popular games like Minecraft, Pong and Snake. Minecraft, to take one of the examples, already asks its players to build their own universes within the game, but through Kano’s educational interface, gamers are one step closer to the building blocks of the belovedly sparse Minecraft interface. They build their universe not through flickering pixels but behind the curtain, using real code.

Klein and his two co-founders named Kano after the Japanese inventor of judo, but the inspiration came from much closer to home — from his 7-year-old cousin Micah, who is part of what Klein calls the “first generation to be utterly digitally native … There’s no divide in their minds between the world that transpires on their screens and the world as it transpires in real life.”

Twelve pieces of Kano

Twelve pieces of Kano.

Source Courtesy of

As much as the media seems scared of digitally-fluent millennials like founder Klein with their Instagrams and their snapchats, many of us current 20-somethings grew up gaming and texting and ’gramming without knowing much about the internal mechanics of our devices; to us, they are, as Klein muses, “totally impenetrable and hermetically sealed.” The result? Legions of 20- and 30-somethings who take tech for granted but don’t understand what’s behind the smarts.

It comes down to this: Code is a language like any other. And, parents, shouldn’t you learn it well enough to have a conversation — at least with your own kids?