Making A Kid-Friendly Computer As A Present: Or How To Be The Cool Aunt At Christmas

This article was meant to be finished up before Christmas, so it’ll be a little late whenever you’re reading it to go and prepare this for the holiday. Regardless, if, like me, should you ever be on the lookout for something to give a toddler nephew or relative, it could be worth it to look into your neglected old parts shelves. In my case, what caught my eye was a 9-year-old AMD laptop catching dust that could be better repurposed in the tiny hands of a kid eager to play video games.

The main issues here are finding a decent selection of appropriate games and streamling the whole experience so that it’s easy to use for a not-yet-hacker, all the while keeping the system secure and child-friendly. And doing it all on a budget.

This is a tall order, and requirements will be as individual as children are, of course, but I hope that my experience and considerations will help guide you if you’re in a similar boat.

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Simple MP3 Player Hides Home Automation Brilliance

Like bubble wrap or the corkscrew, plenty of everyday objects have lost almost all ties to their original purpose. It could be that the original product had no market but was able to find one in an unexpected place, or simply that the original use case disappeared. We think that this MP3 player for children might arrive at a similar fate as a home automation controller thanks to a recent project by [Sebastian].

The MP3 player is known as a Jooki and works by using small figurines (and a few buttons) to control the device. Different figurines cause the MP3 player to change playlists, for example, but it turns out that the device is capable of communicating over MQTT. This means that [Sebastian] was able to use the MQTT messages from the Jooki to do all kinds of things beyond its intended use with openHAB, an open-source home automation system, such as dimming the lights and closing the blinds when he puts his son to bed.

This platform has considerable potential for hacking thanks to the lightweight communications system it uses under the hood. The Jooki is a little pricey, but if you happen to have one around, it’s an impressive tool that can go well beyond its original intended use.

Keep The Kids Entertained With A Time Machine

We often hear it said that today’s kids don’t go out and play as much as they did in the past, but honestly, it’s hard to really blame them. Have you seen some of the games they have now? It’s going to take something a little more exciting than a game of stickball to get them off the couch when they’ve got 4K and VR game systems to play with.

Circuit to control ATX PSU

Which is exactly why [Bobek] is building his kids a time machine. Not a literal one, of course. The Flux Capacitor technology required has yet to be mastered. But it does allow the player to “travel” through time through videos which are played by punching in specific codes they have to unlock by solving puzzles in the real world. Then again, keeping keeping kids active and mentally engaged might as well be “going back in time” in some people’s eyes.

By the looks of things, [Bobek] still has a little work to do on the project, but it’s far enough along that we can get an idea. Inside the bottom of the heavy duty plastic case he’s installed an ATX power supply and a Raspberry Pi 3, and an top of that, there’s a metal plate that holds the power button, an RGB backlit keyboard, and a Vacuum Florescent Display.

After powering on the system, the kids punch in the codes they’ve earned on the keyboard. If accepted, it starts the corresponding presentation which goes over the sights and sounds of the time period they’ve unlocked. In the video after the break you can see [Bobek] test the device with a small display hanging off the end of an HDMI cable, but presumably the system will eventually get an integrated display. The kids could also plug it into the TV, but at that point you might be going full circle.

We’ve seen several examples of hackers creating their own electronic gadgets to keep their children entertained. The line might be a little blurry, but we’d rather see kids use their imagination to “fly” a spaceship in their bedroom than play Roblox on their phone.

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Expert Says Don’t Teach Kids To Code

I was a little surprised to see a news report about Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at OECD — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Paris, Schleicher thinks that teaching kids to code is a waste of time. In particular, he seems to think that by the time a child today grows up, coding will be obsolete.

I can’t help but think that he might be a little confused. Coding isn’t going away anytime soon. It could, of course, become an even deeper specialty, and thus less generally applicable. But the comments he’s made seem to imply that soon we will just tell smart computers what we want and they will just do that. Somewhat like computers work on Star Trek.

What is more likely is that most people will be able to find specific applications that can do what they want without traditional coding. But someone still has to write something for the foreseeable future. What’s more, if you’ve ever tried to tease requirements out of an end user, you know that you can’t just blurt out anything you want to a computer and expect it to make sense. It isn’t the computer’s fault. People — especially untrained people — don’t always make sense or communicate unambiguously.

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The Lichtspiel: Not A Simple Child’s Toy.

For his niece’s second birthday, [Stefan] wondered what a toddler would enjoy the most? As it turns out, a box packed with lights, dials and other gadgets to engage and entertain.

For little Alma’s enjoyment, three potentionmeters control a central LED, a row of buttons toggle a paired row of more lights, a rotary encoder to scroll the light pattern of said row left and right, and some sockets to plug a cable into for further lighting effects. Quite a lot to handle, so [Stefan] whipped up a prototype using an Arduino — although he went with an ATmega 328 for the final project — building each part of the project on separate boards and connected with ribbon cables to make any future modifications easier.

[Stefan] attempted to integrate a battery — keeping the Lichtspiel untethered for ease of use — and including a standby feature to preserve battery life. A power bank seemed like a good option to meet the LED’s needed 5V, but whenever the Lichtspiel switched to standby, the power bank would shut off entirely — necessitating the removal of the front plate to disconnect and reconnect the battery every time. The simpler solution was to scrap the idea entirely and use the charging port as a power port instead — much to the delight of his niece who apparently loves plugging it in.

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A Jukebox For The 21st-Century Kit Blends Raspberry Pi, Sonos, QR Codes

When [Chris Campbell]’s children wanted to play an album in the background over dinner, switching the outputs on his family’s Sonos sound system was perhaps too involved for their budding mastery of technology. This got him thinking about using kid-friendly inputs so they could explore his music collection. Blending QR codes, some LEGO, and a bit of arts and crafts, a kid-friendly QR code reader media controller comes out!

Working with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and a cheap camera, [Campbell] whipped up some code to handle producing and reading the QR codes — though he’s running the media server on another computer to maintain fast response times. Once [Campbell] had his QR codes, he printed them out and got his kids involved in cutting and gluing the double-sided cards. Additional cards access different functions — starting a playlist queue, switching output channels, and full album playback, among others. Cue spontaneous dance-parties!

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Usborne Release More 1980s Computer Books

Children of the 1980s who had an interest in technology were lucky indeed. As well as the first generations of home computers at their disposal they had the expectation to program them, something which the generation that followed had lost.

Traditional children’s publishers enthusiastically embraced the home computer boom, and probably for the only time in history there were books aimed at children covering subjects like machine code, or interfacing to microprocessors.

Kid's books were better when we were young! Usborne(Fair use)
Kid’s books were better when we were young! Usborne(Fair use)

If you are British, the most memorable of these books came from Usborne Publishing. Their format of colourful cartoons and easy to digest layout have made them something of a cult object among the now-grown-up generation who first received them, and Usborne themselves have cleverly exploited their heritage to promote their current offerings by releasing some of them as PDFs. And now, to promote their latest title, “Coding For Beginners Using Python”, they’ve released five more (scroll down to see). Titles are “Practice Your BASIC”, “Better BASIC”, “Computer Controlled Robots”, “Experiments With Your Computer”, and “Keyboards & Computer Music”, which join the fifteen they’ve already released.

Obviously they are heavily based around the microcomputers of the 1980s, but of course for most Hackaday readers that will be their chief attraction. Either way they’re an interesting read, and should you happen to have a few old micros lying around then maybe you could have a go at some of the projects.

If the BASIC listings are a little foreign to you, might we suggest some places to find BASIC information.