What is Raspberry Pi and Why Will Your Family Love it?

Sep 29, 2016

Have you tried Raspberry Pi with your kids yet? Despite the delicious name, it’s actually an incredibly powerful mini-computer that can introduce your family to coding, computational thinking, and the joy of making unbelievably cool stuff. People have used it to create everything from time-lapse video cameras and Internet-connected mini-fridges that tell you when you’re running low on booze to home security systems and robot warriors. Oh, and fart detectors.

The tiny computer is so potentially big that it would be impossible to explain the basics in one article. Still, here’s a small slice of pi — and why it can be great for families with keen, open minds.

What is Raspberry Pi?

Raspberry Pi is an inexpensive (under $50), credit-card-sized circuit board you can plug into a keyboard, mouse, TV and other devices. (There are also pricier kits for the less DIY-inclined, but why buy a case if you can just build one out of Lego?) It relies on a few programming languages (including Scratch and Python) and uses the same sort of mini SD cards as a digital camera. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but that’s all you really need to know to start.

“Raspberry Pi is a computer, full stop,” explains Matt Richardson, a product evangelist with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the U.K. charity that invented the device and promotes computer science in schools. “It has a desktop environment, a web browser — it really is a computer. But one of the distinctions is it’s a computer that makes things, and there are so many things to create.”

Those “things” range from games, music libraries, and motion sensors to fart detectors, birdhouses that live-stream their feathered occupants’ private lives, and anything else you can imagine.

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Who is this for?

Some people hear about Raspberry Pi and can’t wait to start making computer-controlled devices, but others feel this may be a bit too advanced. However, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is specifically targeting people new to this world. In other words, it’s for everyone, not just experts.

“It comes down to how to sew a button or boil an egg — these are all basic things kids should know,” says Andrew Duff, a Toronto dad and Pi user. “In this ever-developing world, coding is essential. We didn’t have apps or smartphones when I was a kid. As boy scouts, we learned how to make a fire. Now, for the same reasons, I think it’s important kids know about programming languages and how to use computers.”

When should kids get introduced to it?

While Raspberry Pi is powerful enough to be embraced by the highest levels of the coding community, its low cost also makes it really accessible to younger users (and families who wouldn’t normally be able to afford a high-powered computer).

"As boy scouts, we learned how to make a fire. Now, for the same reasons, I think it’s important kids know about programming languages and how to use computers."

“In terms of a sweet spot for Raspberry Pi, we say it’s middle-school age—11 to 13,” says Richardson. “We see really, really young people trying it with parents as they are learning to read, though. The Scratch programming language is visual, with dragging and dropping images.”

Duff says he “tricked” his nine-year-old son into using Raspberry Pi by showing him how it worked with Minecraft.

“He got to see all these code snippets that get the game to start auto-building all these castles,” he explains. “And he was like, ‘hey, that was cool. How did you do that?’ So I showed him, and then he started figuring out things like how if you change the coding, it changes where those castles are placed, or how big they are, or maybe changes them from castles into something else. And each one of these lessons becomes an aha moment that gets you more interested in coding.”

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Why is it such a big deal?

The charity foundation that developed the device says its mission is to “put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world, so they are capable of understanding and shaping our increasingly digital world, able to solve the problems that matter to them, and equipped for the jobs of the future.”

“Making computers as affordable as we possibly can is just one part of the mission,” says Richardson. “When I was a kid, we had one computer in our house. I was lucky enough that my dad fostered my own interest and encouraged me to experiment with it… but if I had done anything to break the computer, I would’ve been huge trouble.”

“Computers—especially tablets and smartphones—have become more consumer-friendly, but they don’t lend themselves to experimentation,” he continues. “It’s fantastic anyone can be empowered by computers, but the culture of tinkering has faded away. Raspberry Pi is a course correction for this.”

And it’s gaining traction—the ten millionth (!!!) Raspberry Pi was sold earlier this year. Already big in the UK, its popularity is growing in Canada and the United States — both with families and with progressive teachers.

Where can you get more information?

If this sounds good, there are lots of places to buy Raspberry Pis (and related stuff) online. From there, it’s just a matter of seeking out the various online communities to gain their insight or share your own.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation itself has lots of resources on its site, from tutorials to step-by-step project instructions.

“A huge amount of what we do is creating support around it,” says Richardson. “The resources we create assume you know nothing. They’re there to make you comfortable with the hardware. We want families to find a project they want to make and then become encouraged with a drive to create something they want to see in the world.”

Have you tried Raspberry Pi? What did you and your family learn? What did you make?

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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