Screen-free activities for budding geeks

Even if you’re a tech geek — or perhaps, especially if you’re a tech geek — you may have reservations about introducing your kids to the wonderful world of screens. I recently spoke with a dear friend and tech colleague who has a budding engineer on her hands, but isn’t yet ready to give him a whole lot of screen access. That’s why I put together some of our favorite geeky, tech-flavored kid amusements….but which involve little to no screen time.

Books

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions has been my son’s favorite book for more than two years. Created by Randall Monroe of xkcd fame, it answers pressing questions like “what would happen if everyone on earth pointed laser pointers at the moon?” We have it on paper, Kindle and audiobook, and we still enjoy it. (And it’s now on Kindle Unlimited!)

The Rubik’s Quest and Math Quest series are choose-your-own adventure books that get kids thinking about math, science and engineering concepts. Our son, now 11, has read these over and over for the past two years. The series includes Mission Invent, Planet of Puzzles, Robots’ Revenge and Beat the Game.

Toys

Bitsbox is a subscription box that gives kids different coding challenges each month. It never caught our kids’ fancy, but I love the basic idea. You might check out Tinker Crate, Genius Box, or any of the kid-oriented boxes in this extensive directory of subscription boxes. Even Amazon has gotten in on the action with its STEM toy club.

Snap Circuits are easy-to-use electronics kits that kids can assemble without a whole lot of adult help (at least once they get the general idea). You can get single-purpose kits like the Rover but I prefer the flexible kits thbat include multiple project ideas. I like to buy ours on Amazon by looking for kits on sale.

Little Bits are starter Arduinos (more on Arduino below). They are little blocks kids can snap together in order to make different kinds of functional inventions. They aren’t cheap, however, and you have to buy a decent-sized kit if you want your kids to actually get much use out of them.

Lego Chain Reactions may offer the greatest play value for dollar in the Lego universe. It’s a book with a series of challenges (and instructions) that guide kids through building different Rube Goldberg-type machines. Our kids got hours and hours of fun from this $15 book and kit.

Games

Disruptus is a great way to teach design thinking and get kids engaged in problem-solving and inventing. Players draw cards, and depending on a dice roll, need to think of other purposes for the same object, or other ways of achieving the same goal.

Laser Maze and Gravity Maze are engaging logic games that can be played with a friend or solo. Our son loves them.

Robot Turtles came out after our kids had already mastered the basics of coding, but I’ve heard great things about this board game. You can find it on this list of recommended analog games to teach kids coding. Our kids love Prime Climb and Quirkle, which are also on this list.

Munchkin is not a coding game in any way, but gosh, it sure seems to be popular among elementary school proto-geeks. It’s basically D&D ultra-light: players get a series of cards and use them to build characters and fight various “monsters”. It’s a sweet game the first three or four times you play it, but once your kid insists on buying eight different versions of the game and playing it every day, it seems somewhat less charming. I’d love to say this problem is unique to our family but it seems like a lot of quirky kids become Munchkin obsessed.

With a little screen time…

If you’re ready to allow your little ones some screen access, there are a few activities I highly recommend to get them started with programming.

Scratch is a drag-and-drop programming language originally developed at MIT. It’s a great way to get kids started with programming, but be aware that some kids (like one of mine) will use Scratch access to play other kids’ pre-existing games instead of coding their own. Our kids got a lot more out of Scratch once we got them this terrific book on creating video games in Scratch.

Arduino kits let kids (and adults) build programmable electronics. There are lots and lots of Arduino parts and kits on the market, many designed for adult hobbyists, so your best bet is to start with a kit for kids. Here’s one handy overview, and here’s a list of potential Arduino projects.

Makey Makey is an Arduino that lets you turn any conductive object into a computer keyboard. You plug the Makey Makey into your computer’s USB port, and then attach alligator clips from the Makey Makey board to anything you want — pieces of fruit, the wooden stairs in your house, other people. Fire up a free keyboard app on your computer, and you can now play the piano on a bunch of bananas. We connected our clips to conductive thread that we buried in my husband’s dinner plate, and then used Makey Makey to control a computer hidden under the table, pre-loaded with a fart piano — so when he touched different foods with his fork, it made different fart noises. Truly one of our parenting highlights.

Dot and Dash are delightful programmable robots that are accessible for younger kids. (Full disclosure: Wonder Workshop, which makes Dot and Dash, sent me complimentary robots for review last year.) You can download a suite of free apps for iPhone or Android that allow your kids to program the robots using a drag-and-drop programming interface that is similar to Scratch.

Choosing what to buy

Believe it or not, this list represents only a fraction of what we’ve spent on STEM toys, games and books over the past decade. (An awful lot of that expenditure was for activities that totally fail the “minimal screen time” test.) Our investments have been hit or miss: while some purchases have delivered hours and hours of enjoyment (and real skill-building), others have been brief novelties that were quickly set aside.

That’s why STEM toys are the rare category where I’d encourage you to shop at Amazon rather than a local toy shop. Yes, shopping locally can allow your kids to try out a toy or game, and often means you can make discoveries you just won’t make online. (We discovered Prime Climb at Seattle’s fabulous Ada’s Technical Books.)

But STEM toys are often very expensive, so initial interest isn’t necessarily an indicator of whether you’ll get your money’s worth. Sure, that $150 electronics kit may amuse your kid in the store — but will it hold their interest a month from now? Consider buying your STEM toys from a big, online retailer with a generous returns policy (or a local shop that genuinely wants you to return something you’re not using…even six weeks after purchase) so you can take the risk of investing in a more expensive kit that will give your kid room to grow.

Last but not least — and this really is based on my own experience — don’t let your own geek passions get the better of you. When I’m looking at a STEM toy, my inner eight-year-old gets very excited about all the cool things I — I mean, my kid — can do with it. But toys that require my constant hands-on intervention are rarely successful, which is why I’m still waiting for my kids to grow into their expensive Lego Mindstorms kit.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.