For a budding DIYer, there’s nothing like the scent of solder on Christmas morning. Of course, not every tinkerer is ready to design an electronics project. Maybe your future MacGyver prefers to turn pots and pans into musical instruments, “borrow” all your crafting supplies, dabble with programming, or just play with Legos. Whatever type of project interests a maker-in-training, these kits will teach him or her how to build it.
The snap-together electrical components—think of them like high-tech Lego pieces—that littleBits specializes in allow all ages to assemble complex circuits and projects. The company’s Avengers Hero Inventor Kit lets kids assemble a gauntlet worthy of Iron Man or Ironheart. Then they can practice coding their superheroic wearable to do things like glow and play sounds in sequence.
If your child prefers fantasy to science fiction, he can still learn to code. Kano, best known for its educational DIY computer, now has a kit that lets users assemble a motion-sensing wand inspired by Harry Potter. Through an app, children can program the device so that magical on-screen effects occur when wielders make different gestures. Swish and flick away!
For older DIY enthusiasts, an interest in invention will eventually lead them microcontrollers like Arduinos. A kit is a great way to get started with these circuit boards, which can act as the brain of just about any electronics project. This one, from hobbyist electronics company SparkFun, includes an Arduino-compatible microcontroller called the RedBoard. It also comes with instructions and components to let users build 16 different projects.
You don’t need electricity to build something amazing. Simple paper can fold into a dizzying variety of objects, applications, and DIY projects. And there’s more than one instructional book (think of it as a paper kit) that reveals the fascinating engineering behind these constructions. If you’re curious about how origami works—and how to design your own models—you’ll find a comprehensive lesson in origami expert Robert J. Lang’s Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art. And if you want to introduce a young future engineer to origami, download some free designs and then all you’ll need to purchase is paper.
Makey Makey lets you control your computer with anything from Silly Putty to pencil drawings. Billed as “an invention kit for everyone,” this board connects physical objects to the digital world, allowing DIYers to play bananas like a piano keyboard or alphabet soup like a computer keyboard. Aspiring inventors can also create their own real-world interfaces to, say, steer a video game character with a beach ball. This kit has been around for a while now, but it’s still unparalleled at using fun everyday objects to teach computer and invention skills.
If you’re buying a gift for an aspiring prankster, try a DIY kit that lets him or her make mischief. Adafruit’s TV-B-Gone project can remotely switch off a television, even from a distance. To put it together, however, the builder will have to master some basic electronics and soldering. For an older child, this is a great introduction to slightly more advanced electronics, as it comes with clear and detailed online instructions. And if that doesn’t convince you, Adafruit founder Limor Fried herself recommends it.
What to get for the builder making catapults out of forks or cars out of cardboard? Snap-together K’nex pieces let mechanically-minded makers construct moving devices like trebuchets and Ferris wheels. While Lego is the big name in this type of building module (and appears later on this list), K’nex is arguably more versatile, and its stick-and-joint structure makes it easier to create moving parts. Although the company does produce more educationally-minded kits, this 705-piece pack provides a lot more versatility for about the same price.
Gadgets and computers are all well and good, but nothing really fires up an inventor like a robot. Kanigami’s built-it-yourself bots, designed to resemble and move like bugs, fold together from a flat sheet of plastic. Once an electronic critter is ready to go, you can control it through an app, racing it around and navigating obstacles, or program it to perform new tricks.
One of the simplest cameras you can buy (or make) is a pinhole projector, also known as a camera obscura. But while it’s easy to punch a simple hole in cardboard and use it to project images, saving those images as photographs requires slightly more specialized equipment. That’s where this pinhole camera kit comes in. It comes with film and photo paper, along with tools like an exposure calculator to help camera geeks transform an extremely basic technology into a beautiful picture.
The Kitables Mini Lego Drone Kit turns Legos—plus a few other components—into a wee flying machine. It even comes with a controller to steer your tiny DIY quadcopter around the room. Because the kit requires soldering, you should only give this gift to someone you trust with a soldering iron.