Like the BBC Micro in its day, the Raspberry Pi mini-computer is an accessible way to get children and families into the world of computer hardware and coding/programming.
It costs around £30 and is about the size of a credit card. It can be plugged in to a standard monitor, keyboard and mouse, and fitted with an SD or microSD card on the latest Raspberry Pi 3. It enables families to take on all sorts of computing projects from the staggeringly simple to the complex.
There are a range of expansion modules (like the camera expansion) that can be added to the basic setup as well as different operating systems and languages that can be installed.
These can sound complex, but if you know where to start, you and your family can not only enjoy yourselves learning the basics of computing together, you can actually end up with some incredibly useful creations.
Knowing which projects to take on is part of the initial battle, so here are some of our favourite ideas for getting the most out of your Raspberry Pi with the family.
Most, if not all, of the projects use software that comes with the generic operating system Raspberrian, so you shouldn't need to add much more.
Raspberry Pi projects: Mod Minecraft
While Minecraft is frequently updated on consoles and tablet devices, the YouTube videos children like best often use custom modifications (mods). These add unique extra elements to the game, such as new graphics or gameplay.
It’s not possible to do this on the console or tablet versions but the Minecraft Raspberry Pi Edition has it’s own programming language to let players experiment with their own modifications.
Using the Minecraft Application Programming Interface (API) you can write short programs that change how the game behaves. For example, you can alter how much gravity there is in the game world or how fast players can move.
There are a lot of forums and advice online to get you started.
This Getting Started guide is a good place to begin.
Raspberry Pi projects: Construct a computer
By its nature the Raspberry Pi is a computer you build yourself. By plugging in a set of USB peripherals and installing software called a Linux distribution (which includes Raspian and Pidora) the device becomes more than a novel play-thing.
Once set-up you can install simple word processors, spreadsheets and calculators. The Raspberry Pi is relatively limited in terms of power but is more than capable of completing basic tasks.
There are also some pre-packaged kits that provide not only the Raspberry Pi but the other necessary peripherals and even smart moulded cases. The Kano sets are a good example.
Having children complete assignments on a computer they’ve built themselves adds excitement to the project and offers additional incentives for school work.
Raspberry Pi projects: Build a weather station
One of the benefits of the Raspberry Pi being modular and running a range of different coding languages is that it can take advantage of wider computing projects.
A great project for families is monitoring the weather with your Raspberry Pi. By setting up your device with the Python operating system you can access modules to interact with USB weather stations (like Maplin’s touchscreen product) and collate data of the week’s weather.
This offers learning on a number of levels for children at home or in school. There are also a number of ways to extend the experience. For instance if you add a WiFi module to an older Raspberry Pi or use the one built into the Raspberry Pi 3 you could then send the information to other users to access online.
Raspberry Pi projects: Learn to program games
Children love playing games, but can assume that they are too complicated to make for themselves. However, the combination of setting up a Raspberry Pi device with visual programming languages, such as Scratch (which comes pre-installed as part of the Raspberrian OS), can open the door to children creating as well as playing videogames.
Scratch is a language available on a variety of platforms. You create the logic of your game by dragging and dropping simple elements together. This starts in basic terms but can scale to create complex experiences.
Doing this on the Raspberry Pi enables you to expand the game beyond the screen to control a range of connected lights, motors and speakers via its General-Purpose Input-Output pins.
The combination of creating your own mini-computer and then using it to program games grants children ownership of both the hardware and software. This offers not only a lot of educational benefit but is a lot of fun.
Raspberry Pi projects: Create your own cloud storage
Taking things a step further, the Raspberry Pi can be used to introduce children to the idea of files and where they are stored. A key component of a modern computer, it’s important to consider whether data is on the local device or accessed online.
First you need to add some storage capacity to your Raspberry Pi device, either a high capacity SD or microSD card or USB drive. Once you have formatted the devices ready to store files (ensuring you don’t overwrite any important data), you can remotely access the drives via an SSH command using the Linux operating system on the device. Finally, using the Samba network sharing protocol (which is a free addition) you can setup access and users for the cloud storage.
The icing on the cake can be to then use Nagios server monitoring software to then monitor access to the home network. This teaches the importance of security and how other people can access data if it’s not protected online.
This project requires some careful reading and experimentation beforehand, to gain the sufficient knowledge of the different elements. Handled correctly though, it can introduce children to some advance computing techniques in a simple environment.
Getting the most out of any technology needs a little planning and a lot of parental involvement. The Raspberry Pi offers a great opportunity for a wide range of learning. As we’ve seen here this ranges from hardware to programming or even file protocols. By combining the technology with these fun real world projects families can get more from their investment in these devices.
You can find out more on how to create projects using Raspberry Pi, including in-depth instructions on several of the ideas above, at raspberrypi.org.