The best gift for your kids this holiday season: a Raspberry Pi

It’s that time of the year again, when mommy, daddy, extended family, and friends help perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus by purchasing gifts for the mini-humans among us. Most kids, especially the younger ones, will get some playthings. Many will get clothes, among which there would be an epochal amount of sweaters nobody genuinely likes. A rare few might get some book, but in many cases, it will be of the coloring kind. As every self-respecting geek among us knows, though, all those options don’t hold a candle compared to a modern gadget that can change their lives. A gizmo that can help them grow and become the gift that keeps on giving: a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi was initially created as an educational tool. A self-contained computer that would be ultra-affordable, so that every school — and every parent — could buy a bunch without breaking the bank. You see, unlike typical computers and gaming consoles, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t use specialized hardware. It is the equivalent of a simple smartphone, without the “unnecessary extras,” like the display and camera. Even if we don’t fully take advantage of them, modern smartphones are proper mini computers. The Raspberry Pi keeps the “computing” part and loses the fluff.

The first Raspberry Pi sold-out, but it wasn’t kids, students, and schools buying it, as initially intended, but instead, fans of open source and DIY. A full-blown computer at a tiny form factor and an unbeatable price? What an unrivaled combination for tinkerers, programmers, and those who sought an advanced Media Center solution or retro gaming box for pennies!

It’s precisely for the same reasons that the Raspberry Pi is the best gift for every kid who doesn’t already have one. It can work as both a toy and an educational tool. A Raspberry Pi can have the kids thinking, solving problems, using their imagination, and learning new things. At least, when they are not playing Super Mario and re-watching Frozen for the umpteenth time.

Thus, I’ve decided to compile a list of some of the ways this little electronic board can turn into the Best Gift Ever. I am sure at least one of them will entice you to buy a Raspberry Pi, or five. You know, “for the kiddo!”

Project Ideas

You can build hundreds of things with a Raspberry Pi, but I decided to keep things kid-friendly and relatively simple for this list. You can make most of the following projects with, not for your kids. Thus, I’ve avoided more complicated ideas, like building your own arcade cabinet. Those are admittedly more impressive but may also demand the use of potentially dangerous tools like a Dremel.

Make a Lego Case for Your Raspberry Pi

Since you can build many things within some of which it could be embedded, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t come by default with a case. Thankfully, you can purchase both official and third-party solutions to offer your Raspberry Pi a shell to call home. It’s never a good idea to leave electronics exposed.

Thing is, why spend more money to buy a small chunk of uninteresting plastic when you could take advantage of the situation? You can treat the lack of a case as the first project to tackle with your kids. Why not make one together out of one of the most popular and creative toys, one that both kids and adults love? Yes, I’m talking about Legos!

This would be a big no-no if talking about a full-blown PC, but the Raspberry Pi doesn’t get too hot. Thus, there’s no need for large coolers and specialized cases with ample airflow. You can let your imagination loose and build the equivalent of a house for your Raspberry Pi. Build around any of its ports, leaving openings for connectivity. If you prefer planning ahead or would like a simple guide of specific steps you can follow, this one would be a good start.

Set up a Self-Contained Media Center

YouTube’s top 5 most viewed videos are all songs for young kids, and you can find Frozen’s characters everywhere. As Sherlock Holmes would deduce, and every parent knows, that’s because kids not only like their videos but also having them on repeat. With a Raspberry Pi, you can offer them precisely what they want and, at the same time, liberate your exhausted TV or laptop. It’s as easy as flashing a file you’ll download on an SD card, also copying their favorite movies and videos in it, and then booting your Raspberry Pi from it. Done: you’ll have created a self-contained media center for the kids. Add a monitor and a joypad for control, and place it in their room. You can find a guide on how to pull this off at Raspberry Pi’s official site.

This will result in a Raspberry Pi running a Linux distribution dedicated to a single app, the popular KODI media center. KODI supports most media types, so you can throw almost any kind of video and audio files in its folders. Then, add those folders to KODI’s library, and scan their contents. Let KODI detect all file details and automatically download pretty graphics from them Internets, and call it a day.

You can also go the extra step and make a YouTube account specifically for the kids, then add it to KODI’s dedicated YouTube add-on. This way, your kids will not only have access to their favorite Studio Ghibli movies locally, but also be free to listen to Baby Shark three dozen times per day without melting your smartphone.

Since their media center will be Linux-based, you can also configure the underlying system only to allow its use on a schedule. But that’s a story for another time.

Assemble a Tiny Retro Multi-Console

We might gawk at the graphics produced by the latest GPUs, Playstations, and Xboxes, but that’s because we’re adults. Kids don’t care if Snow White’s mirror reflection isn’t ray-traced or how many strands of Rapunzel’s hair are rendered. Raspberry Pi might be underpowered for games like Cyberpunk 2077, but it packs enough power to emulate older consoles. Consoles with thousands of titles, which might not display the fanciest graphics, but shine where it counts: gameplay.

Like in KODI’s case, it’s a simple process thanks to RetroPie, which comes with pre-configured versions of RetroArch and EmulationStation on the Debian-compatible Raspbian Linux distribution. If this sounded like Greek to you, the simple version is this:

  • Download and flash RetroPie on an SD card
  • Copy some games for older consoles and computers in the appropriate folders
  • Boot your Raspberry Pi from the SD card.

RetroPie presents a snazzy interface giving access to all the game ROMs it detects in its folders. I suggest you don’t give your kids access to dozens of systems and tens of thousands of titles all at once, though, if you ever want to see them again. It would be better if you update their retro-console manually every other month. Each time add a handful of new ROMs to their collection to keep things fresh.

Use It as a Desktop Computer and Learn Linux

The official OS for Raspberry Pi was Raspbian, now called Raspberry OS. It’s based on Debian, which just happens to be one of the oldest, trusted, and most widely supported Linux distributions. Like Debian, Raspberry OS can provide a full-blown desktop environment and hundreds of apps to cover every possible need. The Linux ecosystem has something for everyone, from browsers to text editors and from sketching tools to educational software.

This means that you don’t have to spend a small fortune to give older kids and teens a proper computer. The newest Raspberry Pi model packs enough punch to tackle the same tasks as desktop PCs. It shows its limits only with very demanding processes, like rendering 3D graphics, editing video, or heavy multitasking. However, do note that the older models are much more limited. They offer a sub-par desktop experience – especially the first and second-generation options that had even less RAM and a single-core processor.

Play — and Hack — Minecraft

Minecraft isn’t just a game, but a worldwide phenomenon. The first game to be used in classrooms as an educational tool, Minecraft is available for free on Raspberry Pi and accompanies its default OS. Kids will love fooling around in its blocky 3D world, but that’s only the beginning. It’s when they realize this world can be a virtual sandbox, where they can easily build things by stacking blocks, that they’ll genuinely get hooked. But there’s more.

Equipped with a programming interface, Minecraft for the Raspberry Pi can be extended or “hacked” with Python code. By writing scripts to build things in the game, kids can learn actual programming while having fun. Much better than reading for hours to learn how to print “Hello World” on the screen.

There’s not much needed to enjoy Minecraft on the Raspberry Pi since it’s included in its official OS. After downloading the file and flashing it on an SD card, you only have to add a mouse and keyboard to the Pi and hook it up to a monitor. Boot from the SD card, and then locate and run Minecraft.

Scratch the Itch to Code

Older kids and teens can learn how to program in Python through Minecraft, but with Raspberry Pi and Scratch, even younger kids can learn basic programming concepts. Scratch is a visual programming tool with a relatively simple drag and drop interface, through which kids can create their own games and animations. That’s what makes it easier for younger kids than fooling around with Minecraft’s coding side: with Scratch, they won’t have to write a single line of actual code.

More Complex Projects

You don’t need much more than the Raspberry Pi itself for the projects we saw up to now. Those are great ways to get familiar with the Raspberry Pi but don’t take advantage of its true potential. For that, it’s worth investing in some extra parts — and maybe a soldering iron — and setting aside some hours for next weekend. The results, as you’ll see in the ideas that follow, will reward your time and effort.

Put Together a Lunch Box Laptop

A relatively quick and easy to pull-off project, D10D3’s computer-in-a-lunch-box project is precisely what you think: a computer in a lunch box. Take that, MacBooks!

The whole idea is as simple as it sounds. You’ll need the Raspberry Pi itself, two batteries, a mini LCD, a Bluetooth keyboard, and a WiFi dongle. That’s on top of the same cables and SD card you’d use on a typical Raspberry Pi setup. Plus a lunch box. Then, you pack everything inside the lunch box, mount the components in place with some foam tape, and you’ll have a portable “laptop” for the kids. As an alternative, flash RetroPie instead of Raspberry OS and replace the keyboard with a low-profile joystick. Hey presto: a portable mini-arcade instead.

Make Your Own Portable Games Console

Having access to thousands of titles from the whole history of video gaming through a tiny retro console in their room could be the best gift for every kid on the planet. And yet, it isn’t because there’s something even better: being able to take all those games with them wherever they go. Thankfully, by adding some extra bits and pieces to the Raspberry Pi, that’s possible too!

PiJuice’s project will show you exactly how you can do this by combining a Raspberry Pi with an Arduino board, a mini TFT screen, a joystick, four switches, and some cables. Of course, you will also need an SD card to house the operating system and games.

Note that although you can make this with the kids, there is also some soldering involved. You should either perform those steps by yourself or ensure that the kids stay away from the scorching hot soldering iron and the toxic fumes produced during the process.

Turn Your Christmas Lights Into Sound Visualizers

Here’s a fantastic project for this holiday season. One that can turn you into your kid’s superhero, but also into your neighbors’ worst nightmare: turn your light decorations into a massive visualization for Baby Shark! Follow MakinThings’ instructions to see how you can do this. Take note that this is another project you’d better make on your own, not accompanied by your kids. This one involves soldering, too, and depending on the path you choose, it may also require dealing with power cords.

Still, although the kids won’t be directly involved in the process, I’m sure they will appreciate how the whole neighborhood will be able to feel Elsa singing. All. Day. Long.

Make a Web-Controlled Power Strip

This project is indirectly “for the kiddo” and primarily for the parents since it’s you who will be interacting with it. And it can also be linked to many of the projects we saw up to now. At the same time, it can allow your kids unrestricted access to gaming and media in their room and offer you peace of mind. What is this magical project?

Well, the title gave it away: a web controlled power strip.

It might not sound like something revolutionary, but think about it: by following rleddington’s instructions, you can create a group of web controlled power sockets. Then, place them in the kids’ room, and plug in the media center or retro console you made with another Raspberry Pi. The result? The kids will be free to enjoy failing in Battletoads without feeling mommy’s and daddy’s gaze judging them. And you will be able to enforce bedtime by touching a button on your smartphone’s screen.

A Thousand Gifts in One

I’m sure you found at least one project in my list that sounds like a great idea and justifies the purchase of a Raspberry Pi. What’s not initially apparent is that the most important gift isn’t the final result but the process itself. The fact that you’ll be spending time with your kids, working together toward a common goal.

All the while, they’ll be learning about how computers and tech work. What’s even better, though, is that with Raspberry Pi, nothing’s set in stone. When they get bored with a project, it’s easy to tear it down and re-use the Raspberry Pi to create something else. Something new, exciting, but equally enjoyable.

Or, you know, you could buy them a sweater.

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