clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This is the $150 computer I built with my daughter

The joy of the $150 computer for children is that no one has to be afraid of it.

The fact that you can touch every part of the computer and build the case by hand while connecting all the different components is a huge selling point. You can't really "play" with a traditional PC when you're fitting everything together, and there's much at stake if you mess something up.

$150 isn't a small amount of money, but the Kano Computer was designed to be handled and used by children. It's inviting, and my daughter and I enjoyed the time it took to put it together.

It's not a tricky process, and there's no need to install a CPU or pop on a heatsink. The brain of the system is a Raspberry Pi board, and you merely snap a plastic case around it and connect a built-in speaker. The included instructions have a place you can write the name of your computer before it guides you through the simple process of snapping things into place. The only part that might be a bit tricky for younger fingers was connecting the speaker to the pins on the circuit board.

It doesn't do much out of the box, but that's the point.

One of my few complaints about this process is that the documentation doesn't do much to break down what "brains" means in the computer world. I would have loved a simple diagram that explains what the CPU does and where it can be found on the Pi, or maybe a few quick notes on the difference between memory and storage.

You can fill in these blanks if you're computer literate already, or don't mind pulling up some information on the Pi's design, but a kit that went a tiny bit deeper to teach children the basics of what this hardware does would certainly be welcome.

I'm picking nits though; the sense of delight that I saw on my daughter's face when we plugged the system into the television with the included HDMI cable was pretty great. When you build something, even if it's a simple process, you feel more ownership over it.

kano 2

The package comes with face plates and stickers so you can decorate the case with your child, which is another nice touch. Everything about the package, from the instructions to the hardware itself, exudes a welcoming sense of play. There is nothing in the package that's easily broken, and my younger children have already dropped both the system itself and the wireless keyboard a few times as they were exploring the hardware.

Here's the trick with the computer, and one of the reasons I'm so enamored with this system as a teaching tool: It doesn't do much out of the box, and includes a series of games you can create, rather than things to play. You want to try a basic version of Snake? It's there, but it will quickly start to ask you to modify the code in order to change the game.

It helps to blur the line between consumer and creator.

The system eases you into the idea that everything you see, and everything you play, runs on code. It's not magic; the world of computing has rules and limitations just like any other world. The entire experience, from building the system to starting to use the included software, means to drive this home. You can build a computer and understand how a computer works. You can make a game on that hardware. You can do these things, right now.

This is what I learned when going through this process, and it's something that I wish I would have seen earlier. I wasn't able to build my own system until I was a few years into my teens, and it took even longer to realize that there was no wall keeping me from creating my own games or other content on that computer.

The tools for content creation have never been more able, or less expensive, and the Kano computer is a pretty limited piece of hardware; once you've gone through the included tutorials and intended lessons of the hardware, there isn't much else to do. More content will hopefully come at a steady pace.

What the Kano does well — and seeing it happen in person is pretty amazing — is the fact that it teaches your children to stop seeing hardware and software as something other people are making. It helps to blur the line between consumer and creator, and the hope is that the seed that idea plants will grow in their mind until they want to create other things, or at least carry with them a basic knowledge of coding.

As a first step, this was an interesting experiment, and starting the process of learning to code by building the computer you'd be using with that code is inspired. Seeing how games work, and learning how to modify them and control how they look and feel is a bit like playing god, and children will be able to experience that power in just an hour or so of instruction. What they do after they outgrow the Kano is anyone's guess, but there are few better ways to introduce your children to computers or coding.

This article was written using a retail Kano unit provided by the manufacturer

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon