I am taking a "Learning Creative Learning" class online from the MIT Media Lab (the brains behind Lego Mindstorms). One of the readings was an essay by Seymour Papert titled "Gears of My Childhood" where he talked about how his early love of automobiles and gears in particular shaped his learning ability.
In reflecting on the things that sparked my interests as a child, I think it is notable that I can't narrow it down to just one. I seemed to have access to countless creative toys. I remember building a "arctic research station" out of Legos and placing in a snowdrift overnight. I remember the 300 in 1 electronics kit from which I built a radio. Erector sets, Lincoln logs, tinker toys. Some of the things I remember were not toys. My dad's university office held a number of scientific instruments he would let us play with, including one for measuring sound levels in decibels.
If I had to narrow it down to one, it would be the computer. There were a lot of them, starting with the teletype terminal at dad's university where we could play Star Trek on a special account if the system wasn't too busy. And all the craft items we made out of punch cards and program tapes! I wrote about the early computers in my life here.
The latest toy to spark my interest is also a computer. The Raspberry Pi Linux computer is a marvel. It is faster and has more memory than the university's main frame did, yet I bought it for just $35. It can be used for about anything from commanding toy trains via the internet to learning computer system administration. The applications are endless, and the price puts in reach of everyone. I can't wait to see what the toys of my children's childhood bring about!