Kids can Experiment with Electronics WITHOUT Frustration

LillyPad Development Board with Peripherals Marked

Invention is hard in the year 2011. This generation of young people has a higher threshold for invention – when iPads rule, commercial space flight soars, and titanium alloys hold bicycles together- it seems that inventing something new is so, so far away.

Many young people turn to software and programming, and web programming to invent something new. There is real opportunity here for making something unique, but its not physical- it takes a mom looking at a screen to applaud.

Introducing my children to ProtoSnap and LilyPad

Let’s move to something real, something tangible, shall we? I’ve had the opportunity to try out a piece of hobbyist electronics for my 14 and 16 year old boys. Recently released in August 2011, SparkFun has a introduced ProtoSnap- a beginner’s electronics platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software (called Arduino). It’s made for students, designers, and hobbyists – allowing all to get their feet wet in creating a real gizmo or gadget. Perfect fit!

Skip down to hear WHY I like the ProtoSnap Concept!

So what IS this ProtoSnap

Take a look at the scary picture- its pure electronics. This example circuit board has a small computer processor chip, USB Connector, and several low tech peripherals – like a switch, buzzer, speaker, multi-color LED, temperature sensor.

My kids have the task of connecting the device to the home computer, programming the board to do simple tasks like blink the LED when the button is pressed, or buzz the buzzer when temperature reaches 98 degrees.

Their are a variety of components you can add to this kit

The SparkFun catalog is full of awesome pieces that are made to go together with this DIY prototyping kit- battery holders, connectors, display screens, and much more! It’s a feast for a boy’s eyes- seeing parts and pieces all readily available for purchase starting at just a couple of dollars.(This makes it easy for family members, and even siblings, to buy for them too!)

The three components that we received are pictured and described below with design ideas.

ProtoSnap LilyPad Development Board

The Lilypad Development board is about 4″ x 5″ in size. Its circuity has a main processor (and USB connection), a speaker, multicolor LED, button, switch, temperature and light sensors, a bunch of white LED lights, and a buzzer. This prototype board could be used to create a dazzling light show, a temperature alarm, a security alarm, or a fun addition to a robot toy(its in our plans). All connections can be broken apart and reconnected together using wire and solder, or conductive thread.

LillyPad Development Board with Peripherals Marked
LilyPad Development Board

ProtoSnap ProMini Development Board

This mini board we received is a smaller version of the bigger LilyPad above, but meant to be used without sewing!

ProtoSnap LilyPad ESewing

The E-Sewing Kit is an introduction to SEWING electronics into fabric and clothing. It comes with sewable white LEDs, a couple of switches, and a lithium battery holder.  And you can see below- it breaks apart easily.

Breaking Apart LilyPad ProtoSnap Components
Breaking Apart LilyPad ProtoSnap Components

Electronic Clothing Concept

The Lilypad concept lends itself to the artsy and craftsy side of things. That is the INTENTION of the LilyPad concept- to sew it in!

Sewable LilyPad Connector

Take a quick look at this video outlining the use of conductive thread in a little hand crafted bracelet.


Ok, back on topic….

What does ProtoSnap and the Arduino platform teach my kids?

I’ve expressed my love for STEM learning, and how, you know, I consider it what will continue to keep our country competitive (if possible) in the years ahead.

The prototyping kits from SparkFun, and the open and shared Aduino programming language and tools allow my kids to fully explore possibilities of invention in a way that does not require them to learn the ins and outs complicated circuit components (although they do need to know how to connect a few dots together!)

Why Is ProtoSnap Good for the Student Hobbyist

The ProtoSnap concept is this:

  1. Figure out what you want to do
  2. Try out what you want to do on the board AS IS
  3. Perfect the hardware programming
  4. Snap all of the fun pieces apart
  5. Reconnect them with wire and solder or conductive thread

What this does is allow your hobbyist to focus on ONE problem at a time. #1- Figure out what you want it to do, and then #2 – get it to work physically. Without this orderly process, my kids will get bogged down in the murky area of “is it not working because we did this wrong on the computer, or because the wire MIGHT be broken?”

Where to buy ProtoSnap Items

ProtoSnap and LilyPad development kits as well as tutorials are available from the SparkFun website.The same products are also available on

Final Words on ProtoSnap

I’ll be honest, we’re still getting started with the ProtoSnap kits. So far we’ve explored all their pieces, made a simple blinking LED program, and have some plans for the future. But let me tell you – that experience alone has shown me that the ProtoSnap methods and the Aduino programming tools are honestly an excellent way to involve kids early in the excitement of invention.

This was not a paid post. My own opinions were used based on my perceptions and experience. Thank you to SparkFun who provided the products for review.

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My name is Susan, and you have to take what I say with a grain of salt. I live and breathe all things Akron, like to spout out about what I have no business discussing, and would love for you to follow us on facebook. Or better- get my rants via email or RSS every day!
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