If you ask a typical 10-year-old today what’s inside her computer, or how the software is created, she’s likely to be baffled. Today’s sleek notebooks and desktops, and the apps they run, are a far cry from the crude models of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which required such knowledge. They are usually sealed, and are thought of as mature products.
In general, I think that’s a great thing. Average consumers shouldn’t have to be techies to work, play or communicate on digital devices, as was often the case in the early years. Personally, I don’t regret that my days of adding memory chips, graphics boards, modems and sound cards to a PC are far behind me.
But I do think it would be cool if, as an educational exercise, kids could build a simple computer and then do simple programming on it to get an idea of how it all works.
And this week I tested a product that aims to do just those things. In fact, over the weekend, I used it to build a little computer.
It’s called Kano, and it’s a $150 kit that allows kids — or curious adults — to snap together a tiny computer in a clear plastic case with a bright orange keyboard and a tinny speaker. Once connected to a monitor or TV, the Kano can teach its user how to code, in a simple fashion, starting with making modifications to classic games like Snake, Pong and Minecraft.
It can also do a lot more: Get on the Web, stream music and videos, send and receive email, even run productivity suites. You can download home-made modifications to games made by other Kano users. And your kid can upload his or her own work to share with others.
Kano, from a London-based startup of the same name, is aimed at kids 6-14, and it’s a nice combination of simplicity, education and even charm. I can recommend it as a teaching tool and, especially with younger kids, a family activity.
It goes on sale today at kano.me, and shipping is free.
About the only downside to the Kano is the one important component you don’t get in the kit: The display. Kano connects to any modern monitor or TV that uses the standard HDMI connector (a bright yellow HDMI cable is included) but you have to supply one.
The problem is that you may not have a spare HDMI monitor, or may not want to dedicate a newish HDMI-equipped TV to the Kano, especially if your child is going to spend hours exploring it, as the company hopes. So, you might have to buy a cheap monitor, or a TV.
A less expensive option would be to buy an adapter that will let the Kano work with the common, older video ports found in older monitors and TVs, more likely to be lying around unused. The company recommends some of these adapters here.
One of the brilliant aspects of Kano isn’t electronic at all. It’s a pair of simple, colorful booklets that guide you through assembling the Kano computer and then using the system’s simplified visual programming language. The booklets are really well done.
Kano’s programming language is called Kano Blocks. These look like jigsaw-puzzle pieces, but they teach the logic of computing and allow you to say, change the colors, position or actions in the three games.
There are also modules that allow users to create simple music or drawings.
The programming blocks are, in the background, creating real code in the Python programming language. All of this is done using the company’s operating system, Kano OS, which is built atop a version of Linux.
Assembling the computer was a snap — literally. No tools are required, and the most complex parts — the processor and other chips — are pre-assembled in a single board called a Raspberry Pi, which is meant for do-it-yourself computer projects.
Building the computer took me about 15 minutes. You first place the Raspberry Pi board into a snap-together plastic case, then add parts like a USB Wi-Fi module, a plug-in wireless connector for the keyboard, and a speaker that also serves as the cover. You pop in a flash memory card that holds the operating system and the apps, and you’re done with the main unit.
Once you plug the computer into power, and into your display, it boots up.
I spent several hours easily modifying all three built-in games, even though I don’t know anything about coding in Python. I wrote simple songs. I browsed the Web and streamed videos from YouTube. I even did a little email.
To encourage you to learn more about programming and to try more complex things with the blocks, the system is organized around challenges, and offers badges for doing more and more advanced tasks.
If you get really advanced, you can even make your own game or app from scratch.
Kano is a well-designed product, and a great idea, at an affordable price. It’s one answer to the problem of getting more young people interested in learning about computer hardware and software, and igniting their curiosity.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.