Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Teaching Kids to Program - Part 1

This summer, I've been teaching my two oldest kids to program. They're ages sever and four and a half so I'm tailoring our lessons to what I imagine they can grasp in what can be a very abstract field of study. I've been super impressed with what they've learned so far!

The first challenge was thinking how to make programming interesting and compelling. Something too abstract feels like it would be challenging, there needs to be immediate feedback. Type this in, see what changes on the screen. How about we set out to make a game? That was one of the first pursuits that got me into programming in my teenage years.

The second consideration was balancing simplicity and ease of use. When programming, I always felt more confident when I could understand at a pretty low level what was going on. For this reason I wanted to make sure they gained an understanding of the fundamentals. We'd start with a view of a computer as a very simple machine. Even if this means there is some extra coding needed to get the desired effect on the screen. It's better (IMHO) to add abstractions later once they have an underlying understanding than to try to understand a powerful but complicated library that initially gets quick results.

I'm planning to post what we covered each week. We spend 30-60 minutes in a once a week session though some weeks we're taking off. It is summer after all!

Here's what we covered in our first lesson.

1. You can tell a computer what to do!

We opened up the terminal and I told them to type

print "Hello [name]"

Here it is, immediate feedback with the simplest possible "program." To get this working, I added a bash alias print=echo. Seems like print is a more common name across programming languages for "write something to stdout."

This went over pretty well, both kids typed some things.

Time to introduce some programming concepts. I explained that this was calling a function named print. The print function writes out whatever you tell it to write. I hope purist will forgive my painting with a broad brush.

Next I explained that the words that you give to the function to put on the screen are an argument, er, well, a parameter. The looks on their faces when I called these arguments made it pretty clear that they were thinking of what transpires out in the sandbox.

So here we'd covered the main ideas I wanted to teach them in the first lesson. You can tell a computer what to do! The "what to do" is specified using a function and the parameters that you pass to the function to tell it what or how you want things done.

Time for more fun.

Our four and a half year old can read basic words, but I imagined typing and reading might get tedious pretty fast. So next we turned to something just as simple that doesn't require reading from the screen, and not surprisingly was quite a bit of fun: the Mac say program.

If you've never played with this, in the Mac terminal there is command "say" which works like echo except it speaks whatever you give it in a computerized voice. We started with

say "Hello [name]"

Great fun! From there I asked them what parameters we should give the say function next. This filled the rest of our time. By far the biggest hit was say "[Baby's name] are you pooping?"

Yup, teaching kids to program.
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