Kid's "Counting Box" - press the big buttons to increment/decrement the total

Nathan made this "Counting Box" for his son -- I love LED displays set into hand-crafted wood boxes, and the simplicity of this toy makes it a nice blend of traditional toymaking craftsmanship and high-tech electronics:
My son—now four, but three when I conceived this project—loves numbers and counting. More than a few times I’ve peeked in at night to find him asleep with a calculator in one hand and a flashlight in the other. And one of his favorite things to do with the calculator is incrementing “1 + = = = = = = = = = =” until he can’t keep his eyes open any more. I decided to build him a dedicated machine that would do nothing but count up and count down.

My initial concept was simple: a seven segment LED display so it could be read in the dark, a rotary switch in the middle to choose the value to operate with, and big buttons for adding and subtracting. Green makes the number get larger and red makes the number get smaller.

The Counting Box (via Make)


  1. How long will the kid sit there hitting the increment button til he finds out he can spell “BOOBS” upside-down?

    1. At one button press per second (including a knob turn from any value to any other value), he’ll need to sit there for at least 5,804 seconds.  About 1.6 hours.

  2. That thing has eight digits. At one button press per second, twelve hours a day, it’ll take his kid more than six years to hit 99,999,999. And you just know that he’s going to get it in his mind to do exactly that.

    That said, it really is nicely produced. I don’t think you could buy a more handsome OCD Inflictor. ;)

  3. Beautiful design. It would be fun to walk with and count steps, cars, bugs, etc. An advanced model could just do primes or count out pi decimals. Mathy fun!

  4. I used to be obsessed with the mechanical counters on turnstiles at Disneyland.  Sometimes they would fascinate me more than the rides.  I would watch and watch as people walked through, my parents forbidding me from advancing the numbers on my own.  It would cause significant delays when the rest of the family wanted to go on rides.  Watching a large change (99-100, 999-1000) was a special treat.

    My grandpa, who worked in a machine shop, got wind of this and made me one in a self-contained metal box, with a little handle, that I could click to my heart’s content.  It had six digits, and made a delightful high-click, low-click every time I advanced a number.  I called it “Click Click.”  It was my prized possession.  I would play with it in my room, I would take it in the car, I would drive my parents completely up the wall with it.

    It had a knob you could turn to zero out the numbers, which would advance all the zeroes to ones, then all the ones to twos, twos to threes, etc.  It was my crowning achievement when I once hit 10,000 (or was it 100,000) without any knob-based shenanigans.

    It’s still around somewhere at my parents’.  I think I’ll try to find it.

    1. I’m like that with the odometer on my car. I’ve taken photos of it with my phone at the 54321 and 111111 mile marks. Some time next week I’ll be hitting 123456. I just hope I notice it when it happens.

    2. I did the same thing with one of those hand-held punch-counters you see people using to count people going through a gate. It went to 10,000 and I considered my day complete if I could get 10,000 punches in during one day. Now I’m 58 years old and my left thumb joint is the size of a softball, LOL.

  5. I find it disgusting that the green button makes the number larger and the red button makes it smaller. It simply teaches that more of something is always good and less of something is always bad. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, you should instead be teaching him that a sustainable number is best. 

    1. Well how do you know the box is talking about more humans, or more consumption?  Maybe it’s talking about more bears that breathe ebola on people and also murder them with their giant claws. 

      And who are you to say that “green” = “good” and “red” = “bad,” huh?  Fire engines are red, and they’re good, especially if you’re on fire. 

    2. Why is the green button “good” and the red button “bad”?  You’ve got it backwards, you idiot, everyone knows that red Fruit Pastilles are more awesome than those awful green Fruit Pastilles.

    3. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, you should instead be teaching him that a sustainable number is best.

      Wouldn’t it be better just not to teach your children to count?

    4. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, you should instead be teaching him that a sustainable number is best.

      It’s okay.  The ten digit model is designed to self-destruct if the number reads too high.

  6. A nice design touch would be to have the buttons of differing sizes. Have both of the same colour, but the addition button bigger than the subtraction button.
    Colour coding is not necessarily a good thing in this case.
    I’m a UI designer/cognitive scientist.

    1. “A nice design touch would be to have the buttons of differing sizes.”

      Except then that leads to the impression of the amount added being greater than the amount subtracted.  I think the positioning of the buttons communicates the function effectively, as addition seems to be on the right (which on a number line is the greatest value).

      I’m in math education — I guess this is a field face off!  ;)  

      On another note–I would have loved one of these as a kid.  My proudest achievement as a small child was to count to 1000.  Out loud.  In a grocery store.  My poor mother…

  7. I like the tactile materials; the wooden box and the big colorful buttons.  The selector knob could be a bit more ‘kid’ looking, but that’s a minor comment.  It looks like a Fisher-Price toy from the mid-70’s – nice, robust. I like the design.  I think it will have a lot of play value.

    1. But they don’t have buttons!!

      It’s true that they are very neat. I had a beautiful one as a kid, wooden with many coloured beads… However, I created patterns with the colours instead of counting (wasn’t big on maths back then) ;)

  8. “More than a few times I’ve peeked in at night to find him asleep with a calculator in one hand and a flashlight in the other.”

    Now I want a kid.

    (Neat toy!)

  9. Very cool. And the next box might be a logarithmic counter, multiplying by 2  and 3 and so on to help understand computers, the national debt or rabbits.

  10. He could have used this on the inside, if he wanted to slowly make his 4 year old insane.  :)

    This is a really lovely design, and I could see this becoming a favorite toy for even a non-OCD kid.  I bet the kid will develop games around it, or use it to keep score in games he’s already invented.  Great building block for imaginative play.

  11. Beautifully made box, but not so nice electronics: Why use an Arduino chip, when you finally have the option to do something with only a handful of standard ICs?

    1. The question on my mind is if the box (or the child) can handle zero and negative numbers.

      At that age, they’re more into imaginary numbers.

  12. I would like to have this reply edited by a moderator, please. No need for anything fancy, I’m just feeling a little left out.

    1. I’m not clear why that’s happening. I suspect that if I open a comment to look at formatting, it’s now tagging it as edited.

        1. I shall wear it as a badge of honor.

          It’s like a purple heart, everyone in the trenches gets at least one.

      1. If the original author opens it after you, the (Edited by a moderator) vanishes.

        Thank you for explaining, though. I saw that tag, but no other changes, on a couple of comments I wrote and wondered if my short term memory was totally shot. Then I opened it to fix a grammar error and the tag vanished when I saved the edit.

        1. It’s irking me because it adds two extra lines to let you know that I took out two extra lines.

  13. Funny how in response to a story about someone making a beautiful,
    clever counting toy for his child, we get a bunch of criticisms about
    the hardware used, the button sizes, even about the morality of the
    concept of a counting toy… I guess we all need to feel like we’ve
    contributed something. I mean, look at me! I’m posting a comment too!

  14. I was thinking that the knob in the middle determined the increment to be added or subtracted, like if it’s set on 3, every time he hits the button up it goes up by 3, to 6, 9 etc.,, that would be helpful for learning multiplication tables. and then he could change it to 5 and it would start adding or subtracting by 5

    the box looks awesome and perfectly built, seamlessly perfect, bravo

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