Kano’s clever coding games will enthrall curious kids.
Today’s kids have access to free software that teaches coding through blocks that are pieced together like a puzzle. Now, companies such as Piper and Kano are taking that one step further by pushing kids into building the very computers they’re targeting with code. We tested the latest do-it-yourself PC kit from Kano, the $250 Computer Kit Complete. Can you turn your kid into a coding genius?
Getting their hands dirty
With Kano’s kit, kids build an all-in-one PC sporting a 10.1-inch screen. Kids plug in color-coded components and wires using an easy-to-read manual, such as red for power, and blue for sound. The manual is 81 pages long, but it’s small in size, and provides large illustrations on each page. Its length is a sign of Kano’s complete instructions — it dedicates seven pages to illustrating speaker installation, for example.
The kit is based on the popular $35 Raspberry Pi 3 Model B board. It’s a self-contained computer that includes a processor, memory, four USB-A ports, a microSD card slot for storage, Wi-Fi connectivity, and more. The board plugs directly into the back of the screen via dedicated LEGO-like pegs, which are also provided for the other important plug-in computer components. The display comes with its own hardware-based driver already installed, so connecting it to the Raspberry Pi 3 is as simple as attaching the supplied HDMI cable to the dedicated ports.
Over the course of the assembly, kids connect the power button to the Raspberry Pi board’s 40-pin input/output connector, install a cable block for cable management, install the speaker, the USB-based microphone, the external USB ports, and the battery (which didn’t plug in securely in our kit, and may end up needing tape). All this hardware is enclosed in a clear case that snaps onto the back of the screen, which also serves as a stand, like an all-in-one PC.
Our resident 13-year-old to blazed through the assembly. The instructions were also simple enough for our resident 9-year-old, too. However, we do think the manual’s first six pages should’ve been a stand-alone fold-out blueprint — these pages merely list the component — so kids can jump straight into building. Our teen thought the first six pages asked the builder to pull everything out of the box first, which could lead to confusion.
Easy to build, but supervision is advised
Parents of younger children may want to stay close. Even with older kids, supervision should be applied, especially during the process of installing the provided microSD card. This card comes pre-installed with Linux-based Kano OS 3.0 “Lovelace,” a kid-friendly operating system with an interface targeting “exploration, creation, and play.” The microSD card is extremely small, and could get lost in the building process if not supervised by an adult.
Kano’s Computer Kit Complete is unique in how it teaches to code.
Once everything was built, and the AIO PC booted up and dove directly into a setup screen. At the start, the device introduced itself through a text-based command prompt, asking for the child’s name. It then went through a few tests to make sure the speaker and USB-based microphone worked correctly. After that, the introduction jumped into a more visually pleasing presentation that required a local wireless network connection. We then created a free Kano World account, and a customizable avatar.
With setup complete, the computer rebooted into Kanos OS – and we had no idea what to do next. The manual ends when kids snap on the clear casing on the display’s back. The Kanos OS desktop includes a large assortment of installed programs, but given the hand-holding the kit provided up until this point, we were surprised there was no direction of how to start using the device. Our teen test subject immediately jumped into Hack Minecraft, but we also noticed a large Story Mode shortcut that took up about a quarter of the screen’s total space.
The quest for Pong
Honestly, as an adult who still loves playing Pokémon games, Story Mode is great fun. It turns the installed code-teaching programs into an 8-bit role-playing game. You control a character that adventures through the many aspects of the AIO PC, interact with its residents, and take on quests. You’re not slaying dragons, performing irrelevant errands, or saving the princess, but instead understanding the ins and outs of computers, while also learning to code.
Kids start out on the shores of SD Beach. An Information Booth sitting in the sand sports a “!” above its roof, indicating it has a quest to acquire. The NPC attending the booth introduces players to the world’s map, half of which won’t be unlocked until players accomplish everything in the current unlocked areas. To kick things off, the NPC provides the first quest — complete two challenges that result in a Pong-like game.
Thus, our coding lessons began with the installed program, Make Pong. Here, kids connect blocks of code together like puzzle pieces — pick a background for the scene (code block one), choose a color for the lines (code block two), and build. In Make Pong alone, there are 16 challenges that add on to the previous lesson, such as naming the game, limiting the winning score to 10, adding a turbo mode, and more. There’s also an open-ended “playground” mode for creative coders.
The manual is a hefty 81 pages long, but provides large illustrations on each page.
Other quests kids can grab at the beginning of Story Mode include mastering Pong creation, following the white rabbit down the Power Path, and visiting Python Jungle. Like a Pokémon game, Power Path and Python Jungle are connected, explorable areas with specific themes. Python Jungle introduces kids to the Terminal, while Power Path teaches kids about the AIO PC’s power requirements.
Besides serving up quests, in-game characters act as teachers, waiting for kids to approach and interact. “You can send packets on the UDP train. I’m sending one to my friend Eleanor. I hope she gets it…” says a character sitting in the Ethernet-based Ether Street Station. Another standing around in Port Ether (get it? Ethernet port?) explains the meaning of stereo sound, which is then added to the game’s Codex library, which serves as a reference manual when needed. Another explains the difference between Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
It’s more than just a teaching tool
Again, this RPG-type Story Mode “game” is tied directly to the installed programs. Kanos OS includes code-learning utilities such as Kano Code, Make Art, Hack Minecraft, Scratch, Make Pong, Make Snake, Terminal Quest, and Make Light. All programs listed here rely on code-based blocks that are pieced together like a puzzle, although there are examples like Make Light that require kids to type in lines of code to understand how each line works.
Of course, these programs can be accessed outside Story Mode, along with standard programs like the internet browser, office tools, a calculator, and so on. The kit creates a fully functional AIO PC that’s kid-friendly, and even comes with Minecraft: Pi Edition already installed (v0.1.1 alpha). For the hacking aspect, the game includes an interface and tutorial for dragging blocks of code together to create TNT towers, large spheres, and more.
Meanwhile, Kano Code just focuses on piecing code blocks together via Events, Control, Draw, and Speaker categories. Naturally, our resident teen programmed the AIO PC to curse at us, but hearing an “you have the butt cheese” loop spoken by the artificial voice was simply hilarious. Teens — gotta love ‘em.
A great gift for your little computer nerd
Kano’s Computer Kit Complete is fun in the way it comes together and teaches kids how to code. The manual, albeit long, is a lengthy, detailed hand-holding experience that explains each step with big, colorful illustrations. Everything comes together in an orderly fashion, though we re-routed some of the cables for better management. Our only beef with the kit was with the battery, which didn’t want to correctly plug into the back of the screen. The manual could be slightly shorter, too.
Where this device shines is Story Mode, which offers a role-playing game experience that not only teaches coding, but all aspects of PC hardware. The drawback is the price, which at $250, could be applied to a Windows-based laptop supporting similar, free code-learning programs. In addition to the DIY experience, you’re mostly paying for the 10.1-inch screen, given that Kano OS is free, and the Raspberry Pi 3 board is a mere $35.
Still, we can’t deny we – and our young testers — had fun with Kano’s assembly and coding introduction. This is a great holiday gift for tiny, yet inquisitive, geeks.