First Steps in Electronics for Kids

You can use the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, micro:bit, or something else. But what’s the best first step?

Matthew MacDonald
Oct 22, 2019 · 10 min read

In the distant past, learning electronics was a path through the wild. First, you learned to take things apart. Much later, you learned to put them back together again. You played with electricity, built simple circuits, and tried not to blow anything up (or tried very hard to blow something up, depending on your personal learning goals).

Anyone who learned this way can tell you that the trial-by-fire approach works very well, provided you don’t get burned. But it isn’t for everyone. There are many people with a casual interest in electronics who were too intimidated by soldering irons and circuit diagrams to even get started.

Today, the world has flipped, and there are dozens of products that aim to make electronics tinkering more accessible. Some of them are just glorified model-assembly kits. Others start off simple but leave plenty of room for kids and hobbyists to get creative.

In this article, you’ll take a quick look at my four favorite options for kid-friendly electronics.

1. micro:bit

If you’re looking for a gentle start, the micro:bit is perfect — simple, cheap, self-contained, and with a pathway to more advanced applications.

At its heart, the micro:bit — a tiny microcontroller board that’s smaller than a credit card — is an educational product developed for computer science in the UK. It’s made to teach basic concepts and introducing beginners to code. (If you’ve already got some hands-on experience, you might want to skip the micro:bit and go straight to an Arduino or Raspberry Pi.)

A micro:bit connected to a computer / Wikicommons

Here’s how you use the micro:bit. On a computer, you write a program using a tailor-made visual environment developed by Microsoft, called Make Code. You assemble your program by dragging and snapping commands together, just like you do with Scratch. (More advanced coders can use JavaScript or Python.) At any time, you can test your code using the built-in emulator — basically, an animated picture of the micro:bit that responds just like the actual hardware device.

Even when you don’t have your micro:bit handy, you can run your code on a virtual one

When your program is ready for real-world testing, you download it to the micro:bit (using a USB cable) and your code runs immediately. You can then take your creation away from the computer using a basic battery pack, and even incorporate it into other inventions.

If you’re just starting out your journey into electronics tinkering, the micro:bit offers two big benefits. First, it includes a huge range of useful features. Packed onto the tiny board is a grid of 25 LEDs; sensors for light, temperature, and motion; wireless receivers for radio and bluetooth; and a couple of buttons that you can use to trigger events and run code routines. Even if you never add a single accessory to the roughly $20 micro:bit board, there’s plenty there to keep a maker busy.

The second advantage of the micro:bit is that it offers an optional gateway into the world of conventional electronics. Add an adapter to the strip of pinouts on the edge of the board and you can plug in a basic breadboard. Then you’ll be able to build circuits the old-fashioned way, learn about transistors, and play with motors, servos, speakers and anything else you can get your hands on. And if you don’t have any of these ingredients at home, you can buy the micro:bit in a starter kit bundle that adds a pile of standard electronic components.

Using the micro:bit to turn on an LED on a breadboard / Gareth Halfacree

Bottom Line: The micro:bit is perfect for young inventors that are interested in learning to code with a visual programming language. And you can expand the micro:bit to work with a breadboard, so they won’t outgrow it right away.

2. Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is an ambitious product. It’s not a simple microcontroller like the micro:bit. Instead, it’s a miniature all-purpose computer that’s miraculously crammed into a single board.

Because the Raspberry Pi is a computer, it offers the widest range of possibilities of any of the products in this article. But this design also dials up the complexity. In order to use a Raspberry Pi, you need to decide what you actually want to do. Then you need to configure the Raspberry Pi accordingly. And if you don’t have experience installing and using the Linux operating system — well, you’ll get to learn that too.

The Raspberry Pi in a simple plastic case / Pixabay

You’ll pay a little bit more for a Raspberry Pi than you would for something like the micro:bit. The cost of a Raspberry Pi is typically in the $30-$60 range (depending on the model), which is an almost absurd bargain for a piece of hardware that’s roughly equivalent to the brains of a Chromebook computer. But the list price is only part of the story, because every Pi needs accessories. You’ll probably want an SD card to store data. You might opt for a case (although you can always craft your own). And if you don’t already have them, you’ll need a USB power adapter, a monitor or TV, an HDMI cable to connect to your monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. If you’re buying everything for the first time, it’s easy to run the cost up over $200.

So what can you actually do with the Raspberry Pi? You could play Minecraft or learn to code with Scratch and Python, but those things are equally easy on a laptop or full-size computer. To really get the benefit of the Pi, you’ll want to dig into an electronics project. For example, you can make a monitoring device that checks moisture levels and waters your plants when they need it. Or, you can build a basic video surveillance system. Other more exciting Pi projects include controlling a robot or building a retro arcade machine.

Some of these projects involve code, while others use specialized programs or operating systems. All of them go far beyond the micro:bit in scope and complexity. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of reach for a beginner. Usually, you can copy and adapt other people’s code to do what you want — which is a great way to start learning, if you’re not the type of person who gets frustrated by the occasional roadblock.

In fact, the greatest danger with the Raspberry Pi isn’t that you’ll run into something you can’t do. It’s that you’ll get lost in all the possibilities of what you can do.

Bottom Line: The Raspberry Pi gives you a miniature computer to use as you see fit. It’s a great way to learn about Linux and computing. But it’s a good idea to have a few Pi projects in mind, or you might fall into the trap of just using it as a lightweight laptop replacement.

3. Arduino

The Arduino (pronounced as Are-do-eeno or Are-dween-o, depending on your willingness to fake an Italian accent) is the oldest of the devices explored in this article. It was first created in the distant year of 2005. (Compare that to 2012 for the Raspberry Pi!) It’s no exaggeration to say that the Arduino revolutionized electronics tinkering and kick-started the maker movement.

To casual inspection, an Arduino looks like a less glitzy micro:bit / Pixabay

The Arduino is eye-poppingly cheap. Although there’s a wide variety of Arduino-based boards, a basic Arduino Uno rings in between $10 and $20. You won’t find a cheaper alternative for code-controlled electronics projects anywhere.

Like the micro:bit, the Arduino is a microcontroller. You use the Arduino in much the same way you use a micro:bit — by creating a program on your computer and downloading it to the board. But unlike the micro:bit, the Arduino has no excess frills. For example, you won’t find a built-in grid of LEDs or any buttons on the Arduino. If you want to control other components, you need to connect the Arduino’s pinouts to a breadboard or another piece of electronics. Or, you can expand its capabilities by snapping on an expansion board called a shield.

Where the Arduino really diverges from the micro:bit is when it comes to coding. You program the Arduino using a C-like language, which isn’t nearly as friendly as a visual code editor like the micro:bit’s Make Code or a beginner language like Python on the Raspberry Pi. (Technically, there is a version of Python built for Arduino, but C is better for two reasons. First, optimization is everything when you’re dealing with hardware, and the Arduino’s C-based instructions map more closely to the underlying hardware. Second, C is by far the most popular development language for the Arduino, and it always pays to use the language of your community. If you program an Arduino with Python, you’ll have a harder time getting help and sharing code with Arduino experts.)

Where the Arduino makes most sense is if you want to create a real-world device in the most efficient way possible. You wouldn’t use the micro:bit (because its features are more limited) and you’re not likely to use a full Raspberry Pi (because it will run hotter and be more expensive). Instead, the Arduino is the most practical tool.

Bottom Line: The Arduino is more likely to be found in the hands of hobbyist rather than a young student learning electronics for the first time. But for someone who’s enthusiastic about creating electronic inventions, the Arduino is a great next step after the micro:bit or Raspberry Pi.

4. littleBits

What if you could replace fiddly electronic kits, with their tiny wires and tiny breadboard holes, with color-coded pieces that snapped together like magnets? And what if these electronic pieces weren’t just part of a toy, but included a huge variety of switches, sensors, motors, lights, sound generators, and even a version of the Makey Makey for transforming household objects into interactive controllers?

That’s the idea behind littleBits, the most accessible product in this article, and the only one that lets you explore electronics without a computer. That’s because littleBits is a pure electronics kits, with low-voltage parts and no coding. (There is a codeBit that lets you download code from a computer and run it, but its abilities are constrained and it doesn’t integrated naturally into the rest of the littleBits world.)

The magic “snap” makes sure littleBits are always connected correctly

The brilliance of littleBits is the way it straddles the line between being a safe and uncomplicated environment for playing with electronics and a maker space that lets kids develop their own ideas. Young children and complete beginners can start with a pre-made project. And the littleBits project ideas are clever, making imaginative fun out of even the simplest circuitry. My daughter had a great time turning a servo, a slide dimmer, and a bunch of cardboard into a pinball-like game of skill:

Bumperball is a guided project and a good warm up for more creative tinkering

More ambitious littleBits fans can create their own inventions with the same basic building blocks. In fact, littleBits hosts a huge kid-created library of invention ideas, with build lists and videos. Take a quick browse and you’re sure to find something you’d like to try.

Purists will feel frustrated by the fact that littleBits are proprietary. If you want to use an electronics component, it needs to be an official magnet-equipped piece of littleBits hardware. But littleBits offers an impressively large family of bits. Yes, you lose out on the fun of scouring the local electronics store and repurposing old bits of hardware. But in return you get kid-friendly ingredients that are guaranteed to snap into your creations, frustration-free.

The biggest disadvantage of littleBits is the cost. To get started, you need one of their starter kits. There are single-project kits, but if you want a flexible package that lets you create a range of different inventions, you’re likely to spend around $80-$200. And you’ll still be tempted to buy more bits later.

The lineup of littleBits kits is also a bit convoluted. Different kits offer many of the same parts. Kits disappear without warning. For example, the kit I bought for my daughter only a few years ago has already been replaced with different offerings, making it more difficult than it should be to figure out which projects work with our hardware. But these are minor quibbles. If you’re looking for something that’s dead simple to use but still has some of the flavor of do-it-yourself electronics, littleBits is hard to beat.

Best for: Learning about electronics without frustration, coding, or a computer. Particularly suitable for young children — it’s ideal for 8–12 year olds, but younger kids can join in with a little parental help.

Final thoughts

The modern maker space is an embarrassment of riches. With boards like the micro:bit and snap-together electronics kits like littleBits, even a cautious fiddler can become an inventor of nifty gadgets. In fact, there’s no reason not to give your kid one of these electronic kits and see what they can create. Happy tinkering!

Young Coder

Insights in .NET, JavaScript, and future tech

Matthew MacDonald

Written by

Teacher, coder, long-ago Microsoft MVP. Author of heavy books. Join Young Coder for a creative take on science and technology. Queries:

Young Coder

Insights into the .NET stack. Thought pieces about the craft of software development. Real advice for teaching kids to code. And a shot of humor.

Matthew MacDonald

Written by

Teacher, coder, long-ago Microsoft MVP. Author of heavy books. Join Young Coder for a creative take on science and technology. Queries:

Young Coder

Insights into the .NET stack. Thought pieces about the craft of software development. Real advice for teaching kids to code. And a shot of humor.

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