Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

A Computer Question/Request

Posted by middlerage on June 11, 2014

Dear readers, do any of you have an opinion on the best way to start kids programming computers? I am thinking an argument could be made that this  should be part of the “new” literacy. But the question is what kind of programming exactly? I am attracted to the step-by-step process of, say, writing Fortran (or C, or COBOL, or insert-traditional-language-here). This could lead to algorithmic thinking and breaking up a problem into solvable pieces. Good skills to teach and have.

428px-Scratch_Logo.svgBut then there is also the idea that with young kids you might want something more visual – like a building blocks or lego style of visual programming (to do what? – I dunno). I’ve never tangled with “visual Basic” and I’m not sure if it is even still around, or if VB is even what I am thinking of. My kids love love love Minecraft (which if you haven’t heard, is the video game taking over the world), and Minecraft is kind of a glorified Legos (not really, but a suitable analogy escapes me).  With monsters. But there is the visual and building process, the sandbox* aspect, that is hands-on and so appealing to children. Inspired by Minecraft, I went searching for a sandbox-ish, child oriented programming platform and came upon MIT’s effort called Scratch: http://scratch.mit.edu/  It seems to fit the bill, but so far my kids have been ‘meh’ and it is not tearing them away from Minecraft. Might be an age thing, but I’m also not sure it is teaching “doing something useful with computers” that I want from a programming language.

Another thought is to go vocational and dispense with problem solving languages like Fortran, and visual gamey stuff like Scratch, and instead focus on something a kid could use right away like web page building. Would it be smarter to teach kids HTML, and CSS and PHP and maybe Perl? Java? Javascript?

Please tell me what you think. And feel free to discuss it holistically, like appropriate age, cultural considerations, etc.

* here I mean sandbox in the original definition, as in a place for children to play. Not in the new world order, IT definition of a place to test your wiki programming skills. Which is ironic since I am discussing programming skills, but anyhoo…
P.S. You’ll note I do not use FORTRAN, but rather Fortran. I had the pleasure, once, of taking a Fortran course from one of the originators and he explained that there was never any push to make the official spelling all caps, and that it is sort of a bizarre, historical mod. Interestingly, my spellchecker hates Fortran but not FORTRAN.

6 Responses to “A Computer Question/Request”

  1. switbo said

    Well, you could try a Lego Robotics kit. I think those help kids learn how to write some very basic programs. Also, there is a company called Play-i that has some robots in the works that are aimed specifically at teaching kids programming, but they’re not available until Dec of this year. They’re not supposed to have as steep a learning curve as the Lego Mindstorms sets.

    • switbo said

      Both these options are pretty pricey too. I think the Play-i robots are about $150-170 and the Lego robotics kits are even more, starting at around $300 I think. They do incorporate play into the learning though, which is awesome.

    • Dah said

      That’s exactly what I thought of – robots. By making programming part of building something a lot cooler than a program, I would think they’d be more motivated to learn. Teaching disguised as having fun. But you ain’t kidding, they are crazy-expensive.

  2. Mark Leisher said

    I wouldn’t drop them in the deep end of Perl, Javascript, Java, PHP, etc. If they hate it, they will hate it for a long time. The two best kid-friendly programming systems I’ve seen are Scratch and Logo. Google “python turtle graphics” for a nice Logo system done in Python. Who knows, maybe one of the kids will eventually want to know what Python is and learn to code in it.

    The way it happened for one of my nephews was he went gaga over Minecraft and at some point he was driven to learn Java to create his own Minecraft objects, which he sells online. He’s working on a new style of Minecraft server now (don’t know details yet, top secret). He’s almost 13 now and has been coding since age 10.

  3. Jerry said

    About twenty years ago I tried to convince a toy entrepreneur that intelligent blocks that could be assembled to make programs would be under every christmas tree in families where the parents saw the writing on the wall: programmers are going to rule the world.

    The writing on the wall may actually be a lie, scrawled there by rogue coders in the night. But many a father will read it and believe. One of my coworkers (himself a coder) bought “UNIX for babies” for his as-yet-unborn son.

    So it looks like the block idea has found its way into the real world, a decade too late, as infinite virtual blocks replace the costlier plastic ones. Mark’s minecraft story blows my mind but confirms my belief.

    Once, long ago, I taught programming to non-programmers. We were using a platform called Authorware, which was tailored for making educational software, and the regular constructs of a procedural language were replaced with icons in a flow-charts layout. It removed many of the headaches of syntax, and it freed me to teach programming, which at its core is not about any language but is all about tearing your problem up into little bits and then building something that performs a task (ideally solving the original problem). Deconstruction and construction.

    Which leaves me with no practical advice to give whatsoever, except that if you make taking stuff apart and putting stuff together fun, maybe a programmer will bloom. Maybe you can challenge your kids to build structures in Minecraft to accomplish particular goals. (I know nothing of Minecraft or its physics, so I have no idea what those goals might be.)

  4. Poseo muchas ganas de que te muestren si Microsoft lo Hacia genial o mal con Minecraft

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