My seven year old son Ben has been passionate about Legos since he was 5. He attends a weekly lego club, collects lego magazines, keeps every box and every manual. His room looks like a shrine to legos – lego sets occupy every piece of available space that is off the floor. He enjoys the precision required to follow steps and building a final product truly excites him. Yet for no particular reason his enthusiasm seems to have waned these past few months. The lego phase is sadly nearing an end. He seems ready to move on.
In my quest to inspire Ben to continue building, I googled around for educational science toys. I also had another motive to find an educational toy. I work as an editor for Funderstanding and we decided to create a new feature for the site – educational toy guides. We figure parents will find value in learning how they can maximize educational value out of certain toys. We’d search for and recommend science oriented toys while helping parents get the most out of them.
Snap circuits seems to be on nearly every educational toy list. It looked like a good fit for Ben’s interests – reading diagrams, following steps and creating a fun and interactive toy. More than simply to entertain him, my goal was to teach him some important principles about electricity that he probably will retain better than at school because it is fun. I see myself as the typical Funderstanding parent, in that it is important for me to find ways to inspire my children to learn while playing, but my time is limited. So I figured this toy would be a good one for me to do with Ben and I could translate that experience into a guide for our audience. I am not adept or at ease in the areas of math or science, and I know I am not alone. So I knew this would be a challenging learning experience for me, as well as for my child!
What is a Snap Circuit?
The box comes with two manuals that feature 305 projects. The Snap Circuits kit uses building blocks with snaps that snap on and snap off a plastic board. Each block has a function. There are switch blocks, lamp blocks, battery blocks, different wire length blocks and more. The blocks are in different colors and have numbers on them. In a few instances the color of the snap in the book did not match the color on the actual snap. And in a few cases, the name of the snap in the book was not word for word the same name as it was labeled on the snap. This caused minor confusion for Ben and for me. We just needed to look very carefully for the pieces together.
Projects range from lighting a bulb with a switch, simulating a flying saucer, to creating a police siren sound by clapping your hands. There are several versions of snap circuits – a Junior, Standard, Pro, and Extreme version. We bought the Jr. version. Batteries are required to accomplish each project. At a minimum, this explains that batteries are needed to make electricity, if your child did not know that already. Each project has a short explanation stating the objective and how to accomplish it. There are colorful and relatively easy to follow diagrams for each project. After I did the first few projects with Ben, he did the rest on his own. Ben was extremely enthusiastic about each project he made but when asked if he learned anything about electricity, he said, “No not, really.”
What Do Children Learn By Doing Snap Circuits?
The guide tells you what to do to create a project, but it doesn’t tell you why you are doing it and how it works. As I have such a minimal understanding of electricity and electronics, I felt that the guide provided no tips for me to instruct Ben in the why and how. By virtue of following the steps in the diagram, Ben learned about precision and the importance of following instructions, but he already knew these things from his background in lego building. I think Ben did learn basics about cause and effect, such as “If I connect this piece, electricity will happen.” ‘I need batteries to make electricity.” “If I flick this switch, the fan will fly.” But I would not consider this learning about the principles of electricity.
I knew I needed more instruction for myself if I was to deepen the learning for Ben and write about it for the website. So I contacted Elenco, the Snap Circuits manufacturer, and they sent me a very comprehensive student guide (grade 4-12) that provides tons of details and instruction about the concepts taught in the projects. There are also teacher guides available. You can find and order all of these resources online. I used the student guide as my tutorial in electricity. Even though it is written for an older audience, I found the explanations helpful and adaptable for a 7 year old/first grader.
How Parents Can Deepen the Learning
I spent time reading and re-reading the student guide so I could understand it to the degree that I could explain it and simplify it for Ben, as well as for the Funderstanding article. The guide is written clearly but the topic doesn’t come naturally to me. It was helpful for me to write a glossary explaining the basic concepts. You’ll find the glossary at the end of this post. Here are some basic takeaways for me, that I think will be useful for parents to share with their children.
I recommend doing the first few projects with your child. Explain to your child that in order to make electricty you need a power source. Batteries are the power source in the snap circuits kit. A resistance is required so that the flow of current is controlled. Examples of some objects that offer resistance are resistors, lamps and motors. And of course wires are required to create the flow back and worth.
If you have your power source connected to more than one resistor you will have less power. Demonstrate this to your children by adding a second resistor in the snap circuits projects. See how that lessens the power.
Battery power that is not going toward a resistor, is a short circuit. A short circuit is a wiring path that bypasses the circuit resistance, creating a no resistance path across the batteries. Tell your child how a short circuit creates damage for some of the parts and drains the batteries. Create a short circuit together by running a wire from the battery toward another circuit.
Electricity is About Balance
After several readings of the student guide, the proverbial light bulb went on for me. The light bulb is that electricity is about balance. It’s about the push/pull, the ying/yang, the plus/minus. The power source and the resistor need to be balanced – you can’t have too much or too little on either side. Once I came to this realization, I felt like it would be easier for me to clearly explain the concept of electricity to Ben. I think this is an important principle to explain and demonstrate to your children while performing the projects. Try mixing the parts and components to see what happens if you have too much or too little on either side.
Does the Order of Circuits Really Matter?
I learned that parts may be arranged in different ways without affecting the circuit. The order of parts connected in series or in parallel is inconsequential. The guide explained that a simple way to understand series vs. parallel circuits is to think about the overhead lights in your house. Overhead lights are connected in parallel so that you can have lights on in some rooms and off in others. Within each room the light and switch are connected in series so the switch can control the light.
What matters is how combinations of these sub-circuits are arranged together. For example, you can change the location of a switch or a lamp in certain projects that have lamps and switches without affecting the circuit operation because they are all connected in series. Whether you use a series or parallel configuration in a circuit depends upon the application, but it is typically obvious. You can explain the concept of series and parallel circuits to your child and demonstrate it by changing the location of certain switches and resistors.
Create Your Own Project
Once your child becomes more familiar with these concepts, encourage him/her to shift the snap circuits and other components to see what works and what doesn’t. Then challenge your child to create his/her own project by choosing a power source, resistor, wire and circuits. If you have more than one child, create a snap circuit challenge in your house. Make it a competitive and spirited family event.
Snap Circuits Glossary
These definitions are meant to simplify the concepts for both you and your children.
What is Electricity
- Electricity is energy that can be used to save us effort (dishwashers), heat things (microwave), make light (light bulbs), and send information (television).
- Electricity is one of the most fundamental forces of nature. At its most basic, it is about attraction/repulsion. This is called an electrical charge. Electricity is similar to magnetism.
- Electricity is the movement of sub-atomic (very, very, very, very, very tiny) particles (with their electrical charges) through a material due to an electrical charge outside the material.
- It may be easier to understand electricity if you think of the flow of electricity through circuits as water flowing through pipes.
- Electric current is the rate at which an electric charge flows through a medium, such as a wire. Just as an electric current flows in a wire, water current describes the rate at which water is flowing in a pipe.
- Wires can be thought of as large smooth pipes that allow water to pass through easily. Wires offer low resistance to electricity.
- To make water flow through a pipe we need a pump
- To make electricity flow through wires we use a battery.
- A battery creates an electrical charge across wires
- Voltage is a measure of how strong the electric charge from your battery is. Voltage is similar to water pressure.
- The plus and minus signs on the battery indicate which direction the battery will “pump” the electricity, similar to how a water pump can only pump water in one direction.
- Explain to them that similar to when you shut off the faucet in your house so as not to waste water, you use a switch to turn the electricity on and off in your circuit. On connects the wires and off disconnects them.
- Electronics is about working with and controlling electricity.
Difference Between Electricity & Electronics
- Many work saving appliances like dishwashers, hairdryers, and drills are electrical but not electronic.
- Electronic products use electricity to control themselves, using parts like resistors and transistors; electrical appliances are only controlled mechanically.
- Think about moving into a new house. Most products in an empty house are electrical (such as all the wiring and switches in the walls, electric ovens, air conditioners, dishwashers and thermostats.
- Most items you bring from your old house to your new house are electronic (TV’s, computers, ipods, phones, and most battery operated products), but not all (such as hairdryers and electric power tools).
Where can you find it?
You can purchase it online here:
Or for more information about Snap Circuits, visit Elenco.com.
Please find below a series of exercises provided by Snap Circuit manufacturer, Elenco that enhance learning.
Elenco has provided a list of 20 exercises you can do to alter your snap circuit projects here.
Fun for the Whole Family
Below are videos of Ben and his little brother and sister trying out snap circuits.