Kids are naturally curious about how things work, and with a new trend in hardware companies creating open source hardware products, it's a great time to teach kids about electronics. But modern technology can seem too complex to even begin to understand. So where do you start?
For the past four years I've dedicated myself to teaching electronics to beginners, both kids and adults. I have given workshops to everyone ranging from young kids in rural Colombia to hip entrepreneurs in Berlin. And I have created hundreds of articles, videos, books, and courses. If there's one thing I've learned through my experiences, it's that building hardware is easy.
Professionals in the field may balk at this claim! And of course there are super-complex areas in electronics, as in every field. But that shouldn't discourage anyone from starting out. Take football for example: Is it hard to play football at a professional level? Of course! But that doesn't stop your eight-year-old daughter from playing. The same is true for building electronics.
Whether you're a parent or teacher, an electronics engineer or total beginner, here are six tips for teaching your kids how to build electronics.
1. Buy a solderless breadboard and some standard components
A solderless breadboard lets you connect components together neatly, easily, and temporarily. This makes it easy for kids to experiment and try things out without worrying about damaging parts. When they're done with one circuit, they can simply take out the wires and components and rearrange them to build another. The solderless breadboard is perfect for connecting components, and building more and bigger things.
Help them out with the first few circuits until they get the hang of it, then let them build on their own. This can provide hours of fun for your kids—it still does for me!
2. Look at some basic circuit diagrams
Electronic circuits are explained using circuit diagrams, which show you the components used and how to connect them. This is a great way to start building circuits, and this is how open source hardware companies publish the blueprints to their products.
Teach your kids the diagram symbols for basic electronic components. Start with the symbols for the most common components used in beginner circuits: batteries, resistors, LEDs, capacitors, and transistors. Explain how the lines between the components represent wires connecting the components together.
Kids don't need to understand the theory behind electronics to start building things from circuit diagrams. All they need is the circuit diagram and the components to build it. From there they can start to explore on their own. There are many open source hardware projects online, ranging from simple LED circuits to complex touch displays like the Manga Screen.
3. Teach some basic concepts of electronics with examples
When your kids have played around a little bit with electronics, they're going to get curious and start asking "why" questions. When that time comes, it's time to teach your kids some of the basic concepts of electronics. Here are some things I like to start with:
Closed loops: For electricity to work and current to flow, you need a closed loop between the postive (+) and the negative (–) poles of the battery. This is an important first lesson, and can save your kid much troubleshooting time later. Show them with a simple circuit that when you break the loop, the electricity stops flowing.
Voltage, current, and resistance: These are fundamentals of electricity and your child will find it easier to get creative once they understand these concepts. Cartoons are always great for teaching kids, and this is a nice drawing that may help to illustrate your explanations.
Resistors: Why does an LED need a resistor? Have your child learn through experience by showing them an LED being destroyed by an overload of current. They won't forget that lesson!
Ohm's law: Use Ohm's law to show your child how to calculate the correct resistor size for an LED circuit.
If you're not sure about the details of these concepts yourself, there are plenty of resources online and in beginners' electronics books. You could even go deeper and teach them how a transistor works and what capacitors do.
But remember: Too many complex explanations can make kids feel that electronics is hard to understand. The more you can show them how things work instead of just explaining it, the better. How about showing how a capacitor works by connecting it in parallel with an LED and a resistor, and then disconnecting the battery to show how the capacitor keep the LED lit even after you disconnect the power?
4. Buy a soldering kit and a soldering iron
Once your kid has played about a bit with a solderless breadboard, they may want to make some circuits more permanenet. A soldering kit is a great way to go about this.
A soldering kit usually comes with a printed circuit board, the components needed to build some simple circuits, and some instructions and ideas to start you off.
You do need to know how to solder, but that's easy to pick up and to teach to your kids. This PDF cartoon on how to solder is a good teaching tool.
Basic kits are great for starting kids out, even if they haven't experimented with breadboards first. You don't need to understand how it works to make it work; you just follow the instructions. It's a simple way to dive right into hardware if you don't know where to start.
Soldering irons can be really cheap, starting at under $10. Remember to make sure you supervise younger kids, as soldering irons get extremely hot.
The SparkFun WeevilEye is an example of a fun open source starter kit.
No matter what you do, the most important thing is to let your kids do a lot of experimenting. When they know how to build things from circuit diagrams and where to find diagrams, they are in a great place to learn independently. As they build new things they will become more curious and eager to learn. Having a book available, like my book Electronics For Kids, is a great way of enabling them to learn more on their own.
Your kids probably won't understand how to build a television or a cell phone right from the start. But once they've built a few things, they might start to believe that maybe it's not that hard after all. That belief is what got me into electronics.