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littleBits: A Toy for your Budding Engineer (that won't take over your home)

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New York City parents have an extra challenge when it comes to gifts at holiday time. Not only do they need to pick a present that will help develop their child's spatial capacity, logical reasoning, reading comprehension and small-motor skills (woe to the NYC tot who hasn't mastered all the above by age 4; they give standardized tests early here - and they don't retest, so late bloomers are out of luck), but they also need to pick one that will fit comfortably in a Manhattan-sized apartment (which does make a nice excuse for why there's no pony under the tree).

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That's why the NY Gifted Education Examiner was so excited to try out a sample of littleBits. Not only are they color-coded, electronic “Bits” (each designated a specific function, such as power, light, sound or pulse) that snap together with magnets in order to create a variety of simple circuits, but their size - little! - is touted right in the name.

littleBits are an electronic spin on traditional building blocks that work on their own, or in conjunction with other craft material (not included). And they're tiny enough to fit in a box you can store pretty much anywhere. Even in an NYC apartment.

litteBits were developed by MIT graduate and TED Senior Fellow Ayah Bdeir in an attempt at an “open hardware revolution” that would inspire a community of next-generation innovators and designers. Meanwhile, artists need not despair over feeling left out, as The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has added littleBits to its permanent collection

On their first attempt at figuring out littleBits' potential, my own kids, ages 10 and almost 7, began by following the instructions for snapping together various pieces and attaching them to a battery in order to make them light up. With that accomplished, my son moved on to trying to fix our doorbell (it's been broken since 2007), by Jerry-rigging a circuit with the tools provided. The doorbell rang, but only when directly prodded from inside the house. Not really the optimal state for a doorbell.

Not one to give up, my son next created a secondary doorbell outside in the hallway. And it worked, too. Except that, were he to keep it up indefinitely, it would have deprived him of pieces he could use to make other things. And that wouldn't be any fun. So down the make-shift doorbell came.

Finally, he decided to liven up a school project diorama on the book, Hatchet, by making it so that the tiny figure wielding the titular hatchet inside the box could actually tirelessly move it up and down with the flip of a switch. The ultimate melding of art and science. (Teacher opinion and grade pending.)

Check out photos of my kids' creations in the gallery above, and add your ideas for other littleBits uses below!

A New Exploration Base Kit (10 Bits) retails for $99, a Premium Kit (14 Bits) for $149 and a Deluxe Kit (18 Bits) for $199.

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