Teaching Your Kids to Code
This week is Computer Science Education Week. At our house, it was also the week of Strep throat and two snow days (with very little snow). Which means that after my kids had spent hours turning their blocks and rubber balls into Rube Goldberg machines, put on five puppet shows, and made endless “potions” out of baking soda, vinegar, food coloring, and Orbeez, they begged me to help them build a computer game. Specifically, a “game with pulleys, just like a Rube Goldberg machine, Mom!”
The first thing we did was look for a Rube Goldberg game to play, as research. There are lots of Rube Goldberg games online, some sketchier than others. (There were a few times I hurriedly closed down the browser as multiple windows started popping up.) We finally found one that was about the right level of play for my eight year old, the PBS Kids Goldburger To Go. Just like a real Goldberg machine, it was equal parts fascinated discovery, and frustration. It took a more than a few minutes, but she worked through the whole thing, and then happily showed her 5 year old sister how to play.
Protip: Starting with a PBS Kids game as your coding level target? May be setting expectations a little high. But they did have lots of fun with it.
We’d played around with Scratch and Hopscotch before, but the kids found them a little frustrating– too hard to use trial and error to map their complex visions of world-conquering computer games into reality. While there are primitive pulley games on Scratch, when you peek at the code, they look well above the 8 year old one-hour effort.
So I was pleased to discover the Edutopia review of 7 Apps for Teaching Children Coding Skills. This is a great round-up of kid-friendly programming options, from the very young on up to teens.
My oldest jumped right into GameStar Mechanic, happily playing and building maze video games for at least an hour, while I sat with her sister to take a look at Move the Turtle on the iPad. Move the Turtle was just about right for a first grader, and worked well for my kindergartener-with-mom-at-elbow to read the instructions and help interpret them. But soon enough, maze video games got boring, and I was glad we’d tried out GameStar Mechanic out before paying for the full version.
We moved on to Tynker. (OK, I admit, I moved on to Tynker when they were finally back in school yesterday.) My first impression of Tynker: the interface looks just like Scratch. But wait! Instead of learning by copying and editing existing games, jumping right into the editing window, Tynker has simple learn-to-program games. Start by teaching a puppy to run 10 steps, then 40, then learn how to loop by jumping over a series of traffic cones. Tynker is similar to Move the Turtle in how it has simple puzzles with instructional “hints,” but the interface is story-based, animated, and more engaging in general. This one looks like a winner, and I’ll definitely run the kids through all of the many Hour of Code game tutorials. If they like it as much as I think they will, they might get the $50 course under the tree this year. They might be able to go through the Hour of Code tutorials and learn enough to jump back into Scratch, because they use the same drag-and-drop block interface.
The final option might just meet their approval for building a “pulley game.” Cargo-Bot is a free iPad game that allows kids to program a crane to lift, lower, and move blocks from one spot to another. This is about the right level of effort to start my kids off at: program an existing structure to move up, down, and sideways. The Scratch pulleys, with their individual moving sprites, might be a step farther down the road, but I think Cargo-Bot will be just right for our next snow day.