2018 Holiday Gift Guide: Teens

Boston terriers in red ear-flap hats with white beards

Teens can be hard to find gifts for. We have two at home–we know! Never fear. We have some great ideas for you, plus a couple gifts from my own list for the kid at heart. As with our 2018 Holiday Guide for Ages 5 – 11, I look for gifts that help kids attain new skills or expand their minds in some way. But first and foremost, these gifts are fun! Enjoy!

OK. It might not be glamorous, but we highly endorse teaching kids how to use basic tools BEFORE they fly the coop. So why not equip them with a real set of their own, like this one from Stanley? There’s something truly empowering about having your own tools and not having to ask to borrow someone else’s. And all makers need good tools. Bonus: your teen will be well equipped to help with small repairs around the house. (I have a set just like this and it’s super handy.)

Suddenly anything can become a circuit with Bare Conductive’s Electric Paint. No need to solder wires and it sticks where copper tape won’t. I found this product in a kit I bought at MoMA several years ago and was thrilled when it worked! It’s water-based and I’ve seen it used on the skin too. The active ingredient is carbon, so no harsh chemicals to worry about. If you’re thinking about being a cyborg next Halloween, this is the product for you! Also great for paper circuits projects.

Make: Paper Inventions is a great source for inspiration and instructions for paper-based projects. And it’s a wonderful blend of art and science. We love that the projects in here are all low-cost using widely available components and they provide fun opportunities to hone skills and competency in circuitry, even math (check out the geodesic dome project.) Add some copper tape, LEDs, tilt switches, and some nice cardstock paper.

Karakuri: How to Make Mechanical Paper Models That Move is a beautiful book that blends art with mechanics. It takes you through creating your own gears, cams and other mechanism to make paper constructions move. Automata are pretty awesome and author Keisuke Saka has shown his work in several museums. I think I might have to get this for myself too! The precision required for these projects might be too much for younger kids, but teens who like to tinker should be up to the task.

Some kids are thirsty to know how things work. If that sounds like your child, Thames & Kosmos is one of the best creators of educational kits. This Physics Pro kit includes all the components and instructions for models and devices including a wind tunnel, pneumatic shocks and a hydraulic lift. Continue to explore fluid dynamics, energy, and oscillation.

I think I need these silicone molds for making pendants myself. Fill them with epoxy resin and embed small objects, glitter, color, or, ahem, LEDs! This kit comes with small screw eyes to turn your creations into pendants. Putting the Art in STEAM! (Make sure to work in a well-ventilated area.)

Looking for a robot that’s more than just a toy? Us too. The MakeBlock mBot is an easy build and can be coded with block code on your Android or iOS device. It has an ultrasonic sensor and can do obstacle avoidance and line following. But perhaps the best part of mBot is that you can reconfigure it, add your own LEGOs or other components to design your own robot. The Interactive Light & Sound Add-On Pack gives you even more options. If you’re more interested in coding than building and want to code in Python, choose Codey Rocky, also from Makeblock. The ages 6+ recommendation earned it a place on our younger list, but teens (or possibly adults) can use it to hone their Python skills.

The OSOYOO Arduino-based self balancing robot is open source and easy to assemble. Control it with an Android device. In this build you’ll incorporate a Bluetooth module, inertial measurement unit (measures balance parameters) and a motor driver. We think it’s pretty cool.

The Circuit Playground Express is my new favorite microcontroller. It has so many components already on it (read on). But mostly I love how easy it is to get up and running with it. Code it with MakeCode block code (very similar to Scratch) and connect whatever you want with alligator clips for immediate gratification. Here’s what you get with the Circuit Playground Express (excuse me, it’s a lot!):

10 x mini NeoPixels, each one can display any color (LEDs)
1 x Motion sensor (LIS3DH triple-axis accelerometer with tap detection, free-fall detection)
1 x Temperature sensor (thermistor)
1 x Light sensor (phototransistor). Can also act as a color sensor and pulse sensor.
1 x Sound sensor (MEMS microphone)
1 x Mini speaker with class D amplifier (7.5mm magnetic speaker/buzzer)
2 x Push buttons, labeled A and B
1 x Slide switch
Infrared receiver and transmitter – can receive and transmit any remote control codes, as well as send messages between Circuit Playground Expresses. Can also act as a proximity sensor.
8 x alligator-clip friendly input/output pins
Includes I2C, UART, 8 pins that can do analog inputs, multiple PWM output
7 pads can act as capacitive touch inputs and the 1 remaining is a true analog output
Green “ON” LED so you know its powered
Red “#13” LED for basic blinking
Reset button
ATSAMD21 ARM Cortex M0 Processor, running at 3.3V and 48MHz
2 MB of SPI Flash storage, used primarily with CircuitPython to store code and libraries.
MicroUSB port for programming and debugging
USB port can act like serial port, keyboard, mouse, joystick or MIDI!

If all that is overwhelming, you can always drop in for Open Lab at MKR LAB and we’ll help get you started, show you some cool things you can do, like connect fruit up to the capacitive touch sensors and turn your produce into a musical instrument, or embed it in a glove and create a game controller that reacts to your hand position. So many possibilities!

I love drones. And DJI is one of the best drone makers, though usually at a much higher price point. So the Tello is pretty amazing at about $100. What’s even better is that it has a decent camera (ok, it’s only 720P but I’ll take it at this price) and you can code it in Scratch if you want! It’s also light enough that you don’t have to register it with the FAA. This all means the Tello is so much more than a toy. Try your hand at video editing or code some cool tricks. Note that you will want the controller. While you can pair the drone with your phone, the connection is much more stable with the controller.

This one is a big ticket item, so it can be a family gift. The HTC Vive Virtual Reality System is the top choice from all the kids I queried for this list. It’s also what we use at MKR LAB. We’ve tested this rig plenty and it’s a crowd pleaser. Our youngest child, 9, loves to “paint” with it. I “play” a meditative game on it. And of course there are your typical high-thrill games and sports. A year in, we still are just scratching the surface of all we can do with the Vive. This is the model to get. It outperforms the Oculus and, while there’s a new Pro model available, it only increases performance slightly at a big price differential.

My 15-year old really wants magnetic nail polish this year. It’s regular nail polish with tiny magnetic particles in it. Paint a nail, then hold a magnet over it while wet and the particles will be attracted toward the magnet and create a design. The lid on each of the 8 bottles in this Sally Hansen Magnetic Nail Polish set has magnets in a wave pattern. I quizzed my girl all about magnetism to see if she knew the basic science behind this beauty trend. She did. And she also has been learning a lot about microcontrollers. I think she’ll get this wish.

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