As a kid I enjoyed tinkering with robots, buggys, etc. The culmination of these was a 6-legged walking robot which ran off an air compressor and a BBC B - an ancient lego-glue-and-breadboard ancestor of this robot (sadly, nothing to do with me)
, using the definitely cool Shadow Project air muscles
As an adult I've been unable to resist the similarly cool Lego Mindstorms. Although I haven't had much time to play with this, I can say that it's definitely a high-quality kit. For example, the infrared interface is about 100% more reliable than the one in my laptop. It comes with a point-and-click interface for programming, but you can dump that and use Perl instead (haven't had time to try this yet myself).
Anyway, I had a point (I think). This sort of simple hardware started me off on programming because of the very tangible results, e.g. the project can be to have the robot follow a white line on the floor, or try and trip people up. Depends on the kid of course.
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