I came across Arduino while surfing the web for micro-controller related projects and initiatives. I think it is one of best platform for beginners to start playing with micro-controller programming. The great thing about the arduino is the IDE, which is greatly designed for ease of programming for beginners. However, you certainly do have the option to go into deep programming, but it is very simple if you are familiar with the micro-controller hardware (Atmel AVR architecture) and C++ programming. The arduino IDE languge is very similar to C and Java programming. It has a lot of built-in ready to be used libraries like LCD display interfacing, Stepper motor control, keypad library and lots more.
Learn more about Arduino at: http://www.arduino.cc
Here are some photos of arduino board: