"Drool-Worthy $99 Kit Lets Kids Build Their Own Computers"
December 3rd, 2013
Teaching children the basics of computer science isn’t as simple as teaching them to tie their shoes. How often do you see a parent sitting down with their kids, walking them through a line of code or pointing out the components of a motherboard? Probably never. Because kids think it’s boring. And parents think it’s hard. Today, children grow up surrounded by shiny objects that look and act like magic. There are screens that respond to touch and computers that can do just about anything a five-year-old can dream up. But even though kids have been immersed in technology since birth, it’s rare for them to actually know how it works.
A new kit called Kano is hoping to change that. Released last week on Kickstarter, the Raspberry Pi kit merges basic computer science concepts with gorgeous, functional design, turning just about anyone into a computer maker. Each kit, created by London startup Kano, is comprised of bits and pieces that are constructed to build a functioning computer that can be hooked up to a monitor. On the Kano OS, kids can reprogram Pong and Minecraft, compose music, learn to code and even just word-process—all through a computer they built themselves.
The idea bloomed around a year ago when co-founders Alex Klein, Yonatan Raz-Fridman and Saul Klein began talking to Alex’s 7-year-old cousin. The men wanted to know if it was possible to make a computer kit that would be fun enough to hold kids’ attention, but smart enough to actually teach them something. The kid cousin had some feedback: First, the kit had to be as fun as Legos. And second, there could be no lecturing; he wanted to be able to figure it out on his own. In other words, the Kano kit needed to feel like a toy but act like a teacher.
The founders knew a few things for sure: The instructions had to be easy to follow, it needed to incorporate storytelling and it should place an emphasis on physically constructing the computer parts. Sounds easy enough, but introducing any new technology, you only have so much time to grab people’s attention. And if you’re introducing that technology to kids? It’s even less time. That’s where design came in.
Kano partnered up with London creative agency MAP to work on the industrial design and make the kit more intuitive and cohesive. By the time Kano began collaborating with MAP, they already had a fully-developed kit—it just needed to be refined.
There were small issues; the keyboard was too small for children to use, the instructions weren’t as clear as they should be and the kit’s packaging needed to better communicate what was possible with Kano. “We said to them, we think there is an amazing opportunity to use industrial design to take what you’ve done and built on that to make it a complete experience,” says Jon Marshall, a founding director of MAP who headed up the project. “We want everything to be not only simple to use but understandable; if people can decode an object by looking at it, it helps them to understand it.”
They made some important product tweaks like bulking up the keyboard’s size and implementing separate keys for right and left clicking to account for children’s still-developing motor skills. Even the color was considered: “We really wanted the keyboard to feel like a Lego brick,” Marshall explains. “The orange makes it look really inviting and appealing and not-threatening.”
Likewise, they took a total departure from the typical Raspberry Pi cases on the market and decided to place the board inside two clear c-shaped bits of plastic that connect to form a walled cradle. This allows the board to be protected while leaving the top open for kids to easily attach the color-coded cables and tinker with the guts of the computer.
The product design was key to making the kit accessible to children; but even more than that, it was a way to unite all of the separate elements of the kit into a cohesive product. Each Kano comes with a step-by-step booklet that teaches kids how to get the most of out their computer. The goal is to ensure that kids never get bored with coding and creating. So does it work? Marshall’s own 8-year-old son tested–and approved–the kit himself. “Even though he’s actually learning, he’s having fun and creating,” says Marshall. “He’s actually gotten quite addicted to it.”