May 5, 2010

Programming for kids

Filed under: Devnology,Learning,Programming — Freek Leemhuis @ 4:44 pm

Some time ago I was running out of time for the Devnology codefest assignment to create my own Tetris clone. At the same time I was trying to spend some more time with my daughter, who is 8 years old now. She is sometimes very bored from school, which I sympathise with – I was the same at that age I guess. So I thought this would be a good time to try and see if she would be interested in programming. After some research on visual programming languages for kids I to give Scratch a go to see if we could build something together.
It took us very little time to get going, and in no time we had some of the build-in characters moving across the screen. Visual programming makes it relatively easy to grock some of the core concepts of programming. Loops, conditions, variables – you just drag them on a pane and they snap together.

We started out by discovering animation, and this is when something amazing happened. We added some animation logic while the app was running, and it changed its behavior while it was running.
I had a flashback to Alan Kay’s demo on TED – a powerful idea about ideas. If you’ve not seen it, go ahead and watch – it will be 20 minutes well spent.

Reading up on Scratch I found it is actually build on Squeak, an implementation of the Smalltalk language and environment.
After some goofing around we set off to create a simple tetris clone. Except tetris isn’t that simple, and with no means of testing or debugging, one quickly realises this is really an educational tool but not so good in producing something more complicated.
We did get sort of half-way, but it’s fair to say that by then neither of us was enjoying the experience very much.
I’m very impressed with Scratch as a tool for education young children, and it’s a real joy to see the thoughts and discoveries of your child click into place going through some of the basics. Some advice for other fathers: take it slow, one step at a time. After an hour or so trying to explain everyting, it turned out to be a lot to ask for from Hannah. ‘Can I play with my playmobile now daddy?’ Ofcourse you can, just wait while your daddy finishes this real simple tetris game…


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