make like a geek ~ piper’s toolbox

i discovered piper’s toolbox thanks to an instagram post by a mama blogging friend, just in time for it to be the perfect birthday present for my delightfully geeky young man. there are plenty of blog posts covering the background and technical details of this amazing kit for aspiring young computer geeks, so i will just briefly say that this brilliant concept began as a kickstarter campaign and deserves all the success and recognition it has received.

present IMG_4648

piper IMG_4649

why do i say it’s brilliant? why, because they agree with me, of course! the young people behind piper feel that passive consumption of electronics is not going to do kids any favors when it comes to solving the engineering problems of tomorrow that they will face; the problems we don’t know about yet, so we can’t teach them the solutions, we have to teach them instead how to innovate their own. as a mama who wishes her son to see electronics as a tool to help him create, this kit takes my desire to a new level.

piper just opend IMG_4653

i’ve listed examples of ways i encourage quinn to use technology as a tool, including stop motion animation, studying computer programming and math on khan academy, writing stories and game rules and making game cards. these activities all deviate from passive consumption by making the device and the software perform as tools that help us achieve a creative goal. the thing is, these activities are all still heavily dependent on software someone else designed, and a device that was made in a factory somewhere far away.

getting started IMG_4654

piper gives a kid a blueprint, and everything they need to assemble their own very real computer.

bw piper IMG_4665

hands IMG_4661

no reading is required, as the blueprint takes a page out of lego’s book and includes fully detailed schematic drawings…


…and comes with a screwdriver…



and all the parts you need. based on raspberry pi‘s brilliant technology, indeed, including one of these tiny, yet fully-equipped machines in the piper kit, as well as a power supply, screen, cute red mouse, and tiny green speaker, and various connect-y bits and buttons, piper invites your child to peek inside what’s really going on inside their electronics and learn to expand on them.


that’s the raspberry pi, about the size of his hand. we had a great discussion about why the pi might not be housed inside the box that you build in step one, because that box doesn’t have any air holes. “oh yeah, because electronics probably need air, because of the fire that keeps them going.”



i’m lucky to have grown up beside a computer geek, and my brother has fielded many of my computer questions from afar. moreso than that, what i have learned from him about open source software and about assembling one’s own hardware has really empowered me to tinker and continue on a learning path in what can be to many people an intimidating field. it’s all stuff that can be learned, it just takes a learner who is not fearful of making mistakes. making mistakes (and then fixing them in the next iteration) is what engineering is all about.


after not even 24 hours had passed, quinn’s piper was built, wired and booting up. i witnessed (but did not get on camera) the look of pure wonder and pride when the screen powered on. the screen that he had installed and wired and screwed pieces of wood and hinges onto by his very own self.




upon start up, piper drops you inside a minecraft game that guides you through several levels of tinkering. the premise of the game is that you have to get a disabled, defunct bit of technology (a robot sent into space decades earlier) to work and perform tasks. i think. it’s not like i actually played the game! this was parent hands-off time…


one of the many skills our kids will need in the predicted world of mostly-STEM careers they will inhabit, is the ability to collaborate to solve problems. the day of his birthday party, quinn and his two friends were all over it, pitching in to hold wires together to make the robot go, and troubleshooting and brainstorming out loud for the next step.

bday piper IMG_4689

there’s also a need for self-reliance. after his buddies left and he lost his crew of people to touch different colored wires together to make his robot go forward and jump, he figured out how to wire up buttons in very short order, to do the same job as his friends had been doing. the goal is to empower kids to believe they can build electronics, that it is a medium in which they, too, can create, and piper achieves this beautifully.


i can’t say enough good about this amazing educational tool. aside from the way piper encourages tinkering and problem-solving in young engineers, it is also a very interesting personality revealer. my boy has a tendency to sometimes think he already has the information, and so he found himself unscrewing and re-assembling parts quite a few times during the process, having jumped the gun before he really knew the plans throroughly. not necessarily a problem, but something to know about oneself. he can also sometimes struggle in dealing with setbacks and frustrations, such as the one time he stormed into the kitchen asking me for a sledgehammer, and it has really been a great teacher for him in so many more ways than just the obvious tech-y ones. he worked through all of those issues and when he was writing a thankful list the other night, his piper made the top ten. it’s clear to me that as he uses it and expands upon it, more opportunities for him to come up with emotionally appropriate responses to real challenges will arise.

because he has, and will continue to, use it extensively. although the piperbot minecraft game launches on startup, you can then plug in a usb keyboard (not included but you have one lying around already, right?) and head over to the main menu of the raspbian operating system and find pre-installed software for accomplishing those aforementioned creative goals: programming, word processing, drawing. minecraft pi is (according to q) almost the same as the standard minecraft he has played with friends, except with more materials in the inventory, and is also included on the software list. but that’s not where it ends… the software is all open source, so quinn, once he learns further programming skills (enabled by programs like scratch and sonic pi, on his piper) will be able to adapt and borrow code and come up with new and fabulous ways of creating with technology that haven’t even been tried yet. you know, like hacking a pottery kiln, or a piano, or (duh) a robot, or, you know, a new pancreasย  or a wheelchair controlled by eye movement for a friend or family member.

as a side note, i observed on the piper forums (where i went to learn how to get to the main menu via keyboard and troubleshoot the wifi connection issue we were having) how the emotional iq revealing power of piper is not restricted to the children using this tool. parents posting in the forum sometimes displayed an extreme lack of emotional resilience in the face of a challenge, which to me only increases the evidence for the need for this type of learning; the expectation that something will “work” just out of the box without any tinkering necessary, misses the point of this tool entirely, and it’s interesting to see how quickly parents could lose sight of the goals when challenges arise. some could also use some nuance in communicating articulately the exact problem they are facing (“it doesn’t work” is so often not elaborated upon in the forums, it’s kind of creepy! come on, grown ups! represent!) if we want our kids to engage in outside-the-box-thinking, and embrace a platform for creativity rather than consumption, shouldn’t we set an example?

(she typed from her factory-built laptop that booted up windows 8 as soon as she pulled it out of the box… ahem.)

actually, there was even more representation of adults who “get it” in the forums, communicating well and cooperatively helping each other solve the problems their kids couldn’t handle alone, which is yet another reason i think this is a great learning tool that will see continued success. and so without further ado, go forth and geek out!

10 comments to make like a geek ~ piper’s toolbox

  • I’m soooo excited you got one, and that Quinn loves it. Isaac finished the first levels in Minecraft and has moved on to Harry Potter, which has him tickled pink. Such an amazing tool. And, YAY for geeks. <3

  • i’m so glad you saw this! i had intended to go back and link to you in that first paragraph when i mentioned you, and then totally forgot. so now your comment will lead people to the source of inspiration for this post. ๐Ÿ™‚ harry potter?! i didn’t see that yet! oh, he will be so pleased! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I love the idea, but we may need to start with a basic computer class to learn how to better use a pre built device before we try building Frankenstein’s laptop. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Tim

    Next step, writing his own program for the pi?
    I’m assuming it’s a raspbian OS underneath… perhaps he can do a python hello world(! Assuming you can ctrl-alt-del out of the game and get to the python ide.

    • i was wondering if you were familiar with the raspbian os. and yes it does have that underneath and yes ctl-alt-del gets you to it. which gives you a sort of start menu that has all the microsoft-esque suite of programs, and a suite of programming languages including python, but also scratch and sonic pi, but great idea for the hello world! i will have him read your comment…. have you played with a pi?

      • Tim

        I have not played with a pi, but I like to keep up with the geekiest things. And Raspbian is based on Debian Linux, which I have certainly played with (and Ubuntu, which is based on Debian, I have that running our new TV computer (ok, the computer is roughly 10 years old, but linux makes it like new!)). <-nested parentheses… nesting is a very important lesson in coding as well. ๐Ÿ™‚ Of course, I still mostly just consume the millions of hours of coding that have gone into Ubuntu, Debian, the Linux kernel, the UNIX it was originally based on, the hardware drivers, the media center application, etc. But, it is lots of fun anyway.
        It's neat they put so many programming options right in front of you on the pi… one thing I wish I had back when we had our Macintosh Performa 575.

        • ahh, you are right, it’s just another level of consumerism, alas! (but see, that is cool that you can use your skills to upcycle an obsolete piece of hardware (by consumer standards 10 years old is junkyard-bound)). is the period supposed to go inside or outside or in between the parentheses nest??? oh, the conundrums when coding and grammar collide!

  • Holly

    Thankful list. I like that. As for the geeking out…well, I’m way behind. Our family, it seems, is a product of our culture. We consume. So, my takeaways: 1. begin to teach my kids to use technology not just consume it, 2. thankful lists need to be a part of our lives. Thanks MB!

    • the thankful list idea was a suggestion i gave him because he had a really rough day one day last week… and has been having some issues with boys at school, and was kind of obsessing about that. i told him i thought he could focus on letting that go, and moving his thoughts to something positive but he was really having trouble with that. so i suggested that i thought he had a lot to be thankful for, and maybe making a practice of writing down 5 or 10 things he was thankful for would help him find things to focus on to help him let go of things that were bugging him (but that he couldn’t change, as they were in the past). he liked the idea and did it that night in his journal.

      glad you found some takeaways. you are already teaching your kids to use your computer as a tool, you’re modeling it when you write your blog posts! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>