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How to set up the Raspberry Pi for kids
How I used a Raspberry Pi to connect with my grandkids
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I really like the Raspberry Pi computer because it is a fun way to learn about and play with computers. I wish I had had something like it when I was young but I did the best I could with my slide rule and the mainframe at the local college.
I have also found the Raspberry Pi is a great way to connect with my grandchildren.
Our grandkids live on opposite sides of the country and far from us in both cases. With two granddaughters in the Philadelphia area, and two grandsons in Southern California, we have to travel a lot to spend time with them. In a grand karmic event, my son has the two girls and my daughter the two boys. Even when we are with them, they have school, homework, various sports, and fun activities to keep them busy. They also have other electronic devices like smartphones and tablets, so I thought that getting them interested in a device that would take some work to build and learn might be challenging. It was, but not in the way I thought.
Setting it up for kids
Of course it was necessary for me to do some hacking of my own in order to determine the best hardware options for the devices I planned to give to the kids. And I got to have plenty of fun doing it.
I tried a couple of the mini-displays that supposedly plug right into the Raspberry Pi. Neither were a good fit in the sense that they took more work to install and configure than I would expect a ten year old to deal with. I remembered dealing with my own tech toys as a kid and really just wanting to get started with the good stuff. A little assembly is OK, but spending hours to download and install video drivers is something no excited kid should have to put up with.
I also figured that older displays that were already on hand but no longer in use would be less expensive than the mini-displays. If necessary, an inexpensive HDMI to VGA or DVI converter would enable the video connection. I gave up on those mini-displays for another reason: their size, while fascinating and definitely appropriate for certain projects, just does not provide the amount of screen real estate that would allow easy use of Google and LibréOffice to do homework. Also, my testing showed that the Scratch programming environment that I hoped they would be interested in just did not have enough workable space on the smaller screens.
I finally settled on the CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit (32 GB edition) which has everything needed to get started except for the display and a keyboard and mouse. It includes the Pi, case, power supply, HDMI video cable, and even heat sinks for the chips.
I looked at several keyboard and mouse options, even a really cool foldable keyboard. I ultimately chose an iPazzPort wireless combination keyboard and touchpad that is small and perfect for kids. It is designed for things like the Raspberry Pi, Android devices, and the Google smart TV. It has a rechargeable battery and a USB cable for that purpose. It is also less expensive than separate keyboard and mouse combinations.
I also added a book, Raspberry Pi User Guide, as much for the parents who will be the first target of any questions as for my grandkids themselves. This book contains all of the information necessary to getting started with Raspberry Pi including information about Minecraft, and programming with Scratch and Python, as well as basic information about using LibréOffice.
In March, we went to Philadelphia to visit our son and his family. I took a new Raspberry Pi 3B and most of the required additional components, except for a display which my son already had.
Annie, our 10 year old granddaughter is already interested in science and technology, and some of our previous gifts to her have included Lego sets and kitchen chemistry sets. She was excited when I showed her the Raspberry Pi and, and after a short discussion of static electricity we started to assemble the components.
Although she had a bit of trouble orienting the Pi in the case, Annie was able to insert it properly and then install the heat sinks which are easily mounted with heat conducting sticky pads. It was only a matter of a few minutes to finish assembling the case and plug in the display, and keyboard wireless dongle. She plugged in the power supply to turn it on and we installed the Raspian operating system using the supplied MicroSD card with NOOBS preinstalled. While that took place we discussed a bit about what she could use her new Raspberry Pi for; she was particularly interested in Minecraft as, apparently, most of her friends are. Fortunately, since I know almost nothing about Minecraft, the Raspberry Pi User Guide came in handy.
After rebooting once the installation was completed, I helped her through some initial configuration and we were off and running. Annie's first stop was Minecraft and she spent a bit of time learning to play on the little keyboard. After playing with that a while, she seemed to get restless so we took a break. Later, I showed her the Scratch interface and asked if she wanted to learn how to program. She spent a few minutes getting acquainted with the drag and drop interface and after creating a basic "Hello world" program together, she took off on her own. Soon she had multiple character sprites talking to each other and frolicking around the screen.
My experience with 9 year old Kallen was very similar to that of Annie. He is also interested in science and technology, and he seemed to be most excited about the fact that he would now be able to play Minecraft. I used essentially the same steps to help Kallen assemble his Raspberry Pi as I did with Annie.
Kallen did spend more time with Minecraft in the beginning and within a few hours had built a very extensive and complex house with it. He took a little longer to show some interest in programming but once he saw what he could accomplish, he spent a good deal of time with Scratch.
Both Annie and Kallen were excited to have a new computer of their own. Apart from being my grandkids, they are different in so many ways. As a result their individual approaches to their new Raspberry Pi was quite different.
My big challenge was trying to understand which parts of a Raspberry Pi would best engage the kids. Of course my grandchildren are the smartest on the planet. So, although I wanted to have both of them participate in certain aspects of the Pi, including assembling it and learning how to program it, it seemed best to let them lead by allowing them to move in the direction they asked questions about.
When they asked questions, we would take some time to delve into that subject a bit and see how they reacted. Sometimes they were simply a bit curious and other times they wanted more and more details. So, as much as I could, I answered their questions. I also had to tell them I did not know some of the answers and used that as an opportunity to teach them how to use the table of contents and the index in the Raspberry Pi User Guide. I won't be there all the time to answer their questions and their parents don't have the knowledge that I do to help them directly, as much as might be needed. So having those independent research skills will likely prove to be very useful.
The best part of all this is that I was able to spend a good deal of quality one-on-one time with my grandchildren. If they learn something, or find an interesting project they can work on, so much the better. At least they will know that computers are things they can understand and over which they can exercise some control.
I have two more, younger grandkids and will provide each of them with a Raspberry Pi when they get a little older.