When I was a child I was probably never happier than when I was playing with some sort of "set" : Lego, knitting or my much used Chemistry kit, I loved them all, something about opening up a box and working out what to do with all the little bits really fired my imagination and would keep my busy for hours on end. It seems the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as recently this Electronics set has been the toy that my eldest daughter, aged 7, has spent hours tinkering with, along the way learning quite a lot about electricity and circuits, but more importantly having lots of fun, and I've enjoyed playing along with her too.
What you Get:
The Cambridge Brainbox Electronics set comes in a satisfyingly big cardboard box (see photo above) which is about 47cm by 33cm and 4cm by my measurements. Inside the box all the little bits of the kit are contained in clear plastic moulded slots for each piece, cleverly there's a photo of each component under at the bottom of the box so you can easily see where to tidy away each piece when you have finished play, and if anything is missing. All the pieces are numbered so that you can identify which bit is which quickly and simply.
This being an electronics kit, the main aim is to build circuits that actually do something, from a fully working radio to a "door bell" via lights, alarms and rain sensors. Everything that you need, bar 4 AA batteries is supplied, there's a studded clear plastic circuit board, an instruction booklet (more on these later), and lots of bits and bobs. I won't list them all as that would be tedious, though this link will show you exactly what you get http://www.cambridgebrainbox.co.uk/Product-Pictures/Primary-Plus-Contents.html and the contents are listed on the site as well.
All of the parts are made from solid plastic with metal press studs on them so they can clip to each other or onto the board. Amongst other things as well as connectors to build the circuits there are about 4 different switches, 3 sound integrated circuits, 2 battery units, a fan, a motor, lamps and also a loudspeaker. There are also things like resistors and LED's that were things I vaguely remembered from studying physics in my school days.
The kit is aimed at age 8-12 and according to the manufacturer "covers the requirements of the Science National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 and 2 and beyond". It's apparently designed for use in the classroom as well as at home - my daughter has purely used it at home, with and without supervision, it cost us £27, including postage and can be purchased from cambridge brainbox directly - http://www.cambridgebrainbox.co.uk/ - or from major on-line retailers such as amazon. For the amount of components and actual play value the kit is very good value, though as I shall explain it could be even better than it is with a few tweaks, nonetheless this is a very good toy.
Playing with the Set:
As I have explained the set comes with a manual, which is A4 in size and contains 500 experiments in different units taking you from building a simple circuit to lighting up a bulb to looking at AND OR gates and other technical stuff that was about the limit of my knowledge. Luckily on the first page there are handy notes for parents reminding you of the the things you may have forgotten from school (or never learned in the first place if your teacher was like mine), like the difference between bulbs in series and parallel and the different properties of electricity as producing light, heat and movement.
Getting started with the set is very simple as the bits all click together with the press studs. My daughter had already built a circuit at school so was familiar with the basics, and found it fairly easy to follow the diagrams in the instruction book which show you how to build each circuit. The battery packs and other components clip easily onto the clear plastic board, a bit like Lego, and all the bits are printed with standard symbols that are used for drawing circuits in an educational setting, which will no doubt be handy for my daughter later on in her education. What I think my daughter found most satisfying was that as soon as she started playing with this set she could quickly actually achieve something, it wasn't long before she was working out how to put a switch in her light circuit and even making a fan. She started out doing a mix of following the instructions in the book and trying out things for herself, which is more or less how she has continued to play with this item as we have worked our way through a great deal of the book and made many of the suggested circuits.
All the components are safe to play with for her age group, there are a few tiny pieces with which care should be taken with smaller siblings, and the two included bulbs can get a bit hot so care should also be taken with them. Overall all the pieces are chunky enough for the age group for which this set is designed to handle with ease. My daughter has absolutely no problems assembling and disassembling circuits - you can see in my photos one that she made very recently, which makes some sort of dreadful noise and was her own design I believer. My daughter really loves playing with the set and it has made her ask all kinds of questions by dint of experimenting - will adding more battery packs make the fan turn faster and how does the dimmer switch work? Sometimes I can even answer her questions......but more to the point what's great about this set is that it really gets her thinking and it's hands-on, fun science. She will happily play with it for hours, time and time again, it's really been a resounding success.
When playing with the set together we have probably most enjoyed making the radio, which worked once we had put it together, though the reception wasn't very good - more a problem with the poor reception in our area than any failings with this kit I feel. One of the sound circuits actually plays a birthday tune and you can also have endless fun making sounds such as a fire siren, alarm and retro eighties computer games noises for hours on end. When my daughter eventually managed to get the toy out of my grasp she was really chuffed when she worked out all by herself how to make a flashing LED with added sound. During the many hours that she has played with it I really think my daughter has got a lot out of this set and it's one of her favourite possessions at the moment, really cherished and played with often.
Though the design of the kit is, as I have explained, really very clever, in terms of how it clips together and can be easily assembled and taken apart again, we have unfortunately had a few issues with some of the components. The set is made in China, and we found that on a couple of the bits the press studs were fault; they just don't seem to clip to other things properly. We also discovered that two whole parts of the set (a touch and sound sensor respectively) didn't work at all no matter what we tried, which is a little frustrating and means we can't actually make a few of the items we should be able to. To be fair a call to the company that made them resulted in replacement parts being mailed to us without charge and very promptly, which was great service, but even after having been replaced one part still doesn't work and the build quality overall isn't all that it could be unfortunately. This is a great pity as a little more solid construction would elevate this toy easily from very good to outstanding, we have found that the inner bits of the switches can come apart when being built with, you just can't help feeling that Lego would have built it better. The actual printing on the items is good but some of the workmanship and the soldering could just be more robust.
The little fan that it comes with is very fragile indeed; one of the experiments suggested making it fly and we found that a bit chipped off it as soon as we did this, which was a bit of a shame but hasn't stopped both of my daughters from finding it great fun to play with their own mini self-made helicopter for literally hours on end and to the accompaniment of peals of giggles.
Another slight issue I have with the set is the instruction manual, though the pictures are clear and easy to follow when you are building the various sets, and the language used in the instructions is in "pupil speak", each page is rather busy and the layout could be clearer. I can't help feeling that it doesn't seem to have been designed by a teacher judging on the way the page is laid out - perhaps an older child would find them easier to work through but I have to admit I struggled at times, and bits of the instructions were a little confusing in parts. I can't help thinking that in a classroom environment that the booklet would probably fare pretty badly due to the lack of clearness of the instructions and also the pages of the book are quite thin and not really very robust at all.
Again this is a niggle rather than a deal breaker, but just a little more thought would have made this much better than it is, and given that this is a child's toy, and sold as such, I really do think that it could be a lot sturdier in general.
In terms of how much pleasure my daughter has had from this set, and actually how many hours she has spent playing with it, this should be an all out five star toy. For the reasons I have outlined - build quality, failure of some of the parts all together and slightly unintuitive instructions it doesn't quite qualify as excellent, but nonetheless it's very good. As mentioned also I can't fault the customer service of the company itself at all. I am pretty sure, also, that this set will continued to be played with for a few years to come. Cambridge Brainbox also make other sets, both electronic and also metal kits where you can make cars and robots, I will definitely be bearing them in mind next birthday or Christmas.
This is a fun, educational and ultimately very stimulating toy that has been a good purchase for us. For what you get, and even with the slight issues that I have had, I do think it is very good value for money and far more likely to be played with for a long time than the latest game for the Wii. On that basis I would recommend this toy if you have a child with an inquiring mind, it's been great fun for us to play with together and I have really enjoyed rediscovering that excitement I felt when doing this kind of activity as a child, and I am really pleased that my daughter seems to have had lots of fun too. This is a good toy, that could be a great toy, but it's definitely still worth buying.
www.cambridgebrain.co.uk where you can also see some videos of the kit in operation and read about all the other products that the company make.