Keyboard Concept Designs
for Early Learning and Special Needs

Keyboards designed for adults are impenetrable to small children, while those intended for Early Learning tend to be cheap, breakable consumer toys, with flat membrane keys that are difficult to operate. In fact the quality of design and construction demanded for effective Early Learning use are greater than those for adults; cheap toys are absolutely the wrong way to go. When properly designed and presented, young children can focus on the function and understanding; such keyboards offer many opportunities for structured learning.

The series of concept designs presented here all feature robust keyboards tailored to Early Learning needs. They have been evolved at various times and with varying degrees of sophistication. What they all offer is a specific solution to a specific set of learning goals and associated activities.

In particular, all are aimed at the next steps beyond our robust Joypad. They offer the same familiar functionality through arrow keys, before moving on to letters, numbers and colours. Some offer far more.

See also our switch input devices.

Rainbow Mk 2

Our most recent and mature design as of 2020, the second iteration of the rainbow concept is a full-size keyboard with conventional - and individually replaceable - sculpted mechanical keys. Colour codes group broad key functions together in an attractive and intuitive way. Incorporating the best of the previous studies, it adds turtle control and graded Logo instruction programming, as well as a general refresh to the technology environment.

It covers multiple activities from the earliest joypad input to intermediate-level typing, graphics and even basic computer literacy. Its aim is to initially introduce computer interaction via dedicated keys, graduating through indirect key functions to graphical widget and menu item selection, and on to programming and data handling concepts.

Key features are listed below.


Earliest interaction:

Basic learning:

Advanced learning and control:

Many of these features appeared in the earlier designs.


The design is capable of being implemented as either a keyboard peripheral connecting to any common PC, or as a standalone micro needing only a TV or monitor to give full netbook or chromebook functionality. Each mode is aimed at a different user requirement:

Rainbow Mk 1

The Rainbow Mk 1 was a 1990s study for a standalone 8-bit micro with a full range of learning functions. Although Joypad compatible, it was more oriented towards the old text-based operating systems such as BASIC.

It was aimed at a narrower age range, lacking the turtle, programming and fuller puctuation of the Mk 2. On the other hand its colour keys doubled as function keys with a holder above the keyboard for overlays.

Its colour palette was 8-bit, based on RGB with three bits each (eight levels) for red and green, and 2 bits (4 levels) for blue. This allowed better rendering of browns and other basic colour shades than the very limited palettes of early 8-bit micros, without the expense of complicated circuitry.


The Prism was among our 1980s designs. Its later iterations were aimed more directly at migration from the Joypad, having a replica joypad alongside the main keyboard.

Featuring the 7-bit colour palette of the SAM Coupé, it was envisaged as a development of the SAM with TV-quality digital audio output.

The earliest variant took as its starting point the interactive toys then appearing. It kept their alphabetical keyboard layout and small button-style keys, which proved unpopular with teachers. It did include a "compass rose" joypad which predated the Early Learning arrow buttons and later became popular on games consoles. It also featured a small status display screen above the joypad, offering facilities similar to those of the Rainbow Mk 2's Menu key.

Holdfast Technologies, Park View, Queenhill, Upton-on-Severn, Worcs, WR8 0RE, United Kingdom.

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