For many kids – and computer science students for that matter – a computer is a black magic box, shipped straight from the vendor and never intended to be opened. In some cases, companies go to great lengths to stop you getting inside.

Kano is a startup that wants to turn that notion on its head. It sells a computer for children, but it’s designed as a kit for assembly. Children snap together the computer from a set of easy-to-use subassembly components, to give them a sense of having built the thing on their own.

Officially launched in early October, Kano is a piece-it together computer, reminiscent of those days when enthusiasts used to bolt together their systems from kits. Whereas the kits used to be for serious hackers only, Kano’s is designed to be child’s play.

Inside Kano

The kit comes with several components; a CPU ‘brain’ based on the Raspberry Pi, a case that you assemble yourself, and a speaker that you integrate into it. The keyboard comes as a complete unit that you just plug into one of the USB slots, and the system connects to the user’s own display via HDMI.

The machine’s memory is an 8Gb SD card, containing the operating system and another plug-in component gives the system WiFi capabilities. The whole thing costs $149.99.

Co-founder Yonotan Raz-Fridman explains that he started the company after a conversation with Saul Klein, a partner at VC firm Index Ventures. Klein bought in his cousin, Alex Klein. “The three us quickly realized we had a similar mission to create technology built for the new creative generation who are searching for different ways to take control of the world around them,“ Raz-Fridman says.

The ‘sweet spot’ for the machine is 6-14 years old, according to Raz-Fridman, who believes that building your own computer – even a snap-together unit like the Kano – gives children a sense of authority, ownership and accomplishment . Being able to create their own machine lowers the barriers for other activities, like coding, which the machine is designed for.

This sense of ownership is accentuated by the stickers and decals that the company ships with the kit, says Raz-Fridman. It sounds insignificant, but he may be onto something. Kids love their stickers, and use them to make a thing theirs, as any scraper-wielding parent will attest to.

“Once the computer is built, you can make everything from a wireless server, custom worlds in Minecraft, and games like Pong and Snake as well as create music and sounds through coding,” he says.

Code your own castle

The coding part comes in various forms, including a system to code Python, and also Kano Blocks, a visual block-based programming language based on Blockly, a language from Google that underpins other web-based tutorials and games. It’s a little like Scratch, but pushes the envelope, according to the company.

“We love Scratch and run it on our operating system. Like Scratch, Kano Blocks use visual jigsaw code pieces, but go a bit further, as they generate more familiar code that can be pumped into apps and games like Minecraft,” says Raz-Fridman. ‘For example, Blocks output code in mainline programming languages like Python and JavaScript.”

Kano realises this in its own system by shipping a version of the Minecraft virtual world. Mojang, the company that created the game before it was sold to Microsoft, provides a free edition for the Raspberry Pi. Kano’s team has integrated the system with Kano Blocks, enabling kids to build custom worlds in the game by dragging and dropping blocks that generate real Python code.

Any parent that has spent even ten minutes with their kids in Minecraft knows how much work goes into crafting structures by hand. Wouldn’t it be great to build entire castles in code? It’s also a great way to teach your kids about coding in a way that offers immediate and satisfying visual results.

Check out this video from the Kano team showing this feature in action. It’s really kind of neat.

You can use repeat loops in Kano Blocks to do things that would take you hours in Kano. I can’t wait for my mini-Minecraft addicts to get their hands on this.

Giving it away

One of the things that we like about Kano is that it really believes in its hardware. The firm shows this commitment to the hardware product by giving away its software – and the entire operating system – for free. If you already have a Raspberry Pi, you can download it and enjoy the software’s features without buying its kit at all.

Kano Blocks use visual jigsaw code pieces, but go a bit further, as they generate more familiar code that can be pumped into apps and games like Minecraft.

The company also features a community site that lets children share what they’ve created.

The company has a broad mission of enabling a billion people to make, learn and play with technology in the next ten years, according to Raz-Fridman.

“The world is being outfitted with this open technology, which makes it increasingly important for children to know and understand it,” he says. “Understanding the world of code gives children a new set of reigns to shape their world. That said, it is not just about coding. It is about the bigger picture, equipping a whole new generation with the tools to develop relevant skills in a century where technology becomes ubiquitous.”

In a way, then, it really is similar to those homebrew computer clubs of the early years – except that you don’t need to give your kids a soldering iron this time.