The whole world has gone techno.
There’s no doubt that technology will continue to play an exponentially expanding role in our kids’ lives. Literacy has new meaning in this new world. To thrive in a computer-centric world, our kids won’t just need to know how to read and write; they’ll also need to understand how to read and write code.
Admittedly, my previous years as a programmer and my degree in computer science may make be a little biased on the subject. But I’ve also spent well over a decade teaching people how to make their computers, software or websites do what they want them to do. I’ve seen first hand how important is is to be able to think like a programmer.
As the seasons turn and we look for fun, creative and imaginative ways to engage our kids inside the house, I can think of no better time to start learning about programming!
What’s that you said? How can a casual computer user even begin to teach their kids programming?
I’m so glad you asked.
At it’s root, programming is logic. So, find activities that reinforce the concept that “every time I do this, that happens.”
For the tiniest future-programmers, that would be things like stacking rings, wooden blocks and shape sorters. As they get a little older, consider introducing more complicated cause and effect toys like a marble run or a gear builder.
It’s also a good idea to encourage independent activities that require concentration and contemplation. Puzzles and number games are obvious examples, but a couple of my favorite recommendations are Castle Logix and Tangoes. As a bonus suggestion, Tanagram Moment is an Adroid app that rocks!
Take logical thinking to the big kids on a mind-blowing level with the card game Ergo. The card stack is a combination of variable cards (A, B, C and D) and familiar logical operators like NOT’, AND, OR and IF-THEN. During each round, players try to collectively build a Proof that proves their existence, while disproving the existence of any other players. Game play is explained here.
This is not a game for the little ones! I’d say at least 12 and up, with some notably exceptional kiddos out there. It’s also a fantastic game for moms & dads who want to have fun while tapping into previously unused parts of the gray matter. Plus, the game’s tagline cracks me up: “I play, therefore I am.” Awesome!
Logic Games Online
There are some amazing games out there that have been developed specifically for building logical thinking skills. Kids play them because they’re fun and challenging. And you have the benefit of knowing these games are rewiring their minds, creating new pathways of thought and teaching them new ways to process complex information. It’s a win-win!
Magic Pen is an Italian game (tell Google to translate the page). In it, you use gravity, inertia, friction and a grease pencil to roll a red circle (or square in some levels) to a flag. It’s definitely easier to do than to explain!
Fantastic-Contraption is a fun physics puzzle game. In each level, you’re presented with a problem and assorted tools you can use to build a machine (or contraption) in the “workshop” that will move an object to the goal. Again, it’s hard to explain, but good clean brain-building fun.
Auditorium is a beautiful and relaxing game of light and sound. It’s all about the process of discovery or trial & error. There are no right or wrong answers, and there are many ways to solve every puzzle. It’s also available as a super cool iPhone app.
And then there’s Light-Bot and RoboZZle. Both of these games will baby-step you into some more advanced concepts of programming. In the games, you control the movements of a robot by giving it commands. To complete the more complex levels, you use programmer-style logic that includes functions (or sets of instructions) to re-use. This is real programming with a point & click interface. It’s an all around great brain game for ages 10 – 110. The RoboZZle site has a great video that explains how the functions work, but personally, I’m partial to Light-Bot. I just love that adorable little guy!
Real Programming Fun for Kids
What kid wouldn’t love to build a fully functional robot or create their own video game? Now they can! With these amazing, kid-friendly programming languages and resources, the only limit to what they can create is their imaginations. And that is insanely empowering…especially when you’re 8 or 18 or even 38.
Merlin Programmer for Kids is a simple program to introduce kids to the concept of sequential programming. The site says it’s great for kids 5 – 8 or as a first step for older kids before jumping into Scratch (see below). Merlin allows kids to make the Microsoft Office character Merlin or any of the other characters perform actions, move, speak, listen for and make sounds in a predetermined manner. Yep, that’s pretty cool.
Scratch is a programming language developed at MIT that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web.
In Alice, 3-D objects (e.g., people, animals, and vehicles) populate a virtual world and kids create a program to animate the objects. By manipulating the objects in the virtual world, kids are introduced to all the real-life programming constructs that are typically taught in introductory programming courses.
There’s also Storytelling Alice, which is built on the same framework as Alice. It’s programming environment is focused on making programming fun and is designed to motivate middle school kids (especially girls) to learn how to program by creating short 3D animated movies.
With GameMaker for Windows you can design your own professional looking games using easy-to-learn drag-and-drop actions. As you get more experienced, there is an easy built-in programming GameMaker Language (GML) that gives you full flexibility. The coolest part is, you can do anything you want with the games you make, even sell them! I just love the idea of entrepreneurial, 12 year old programmers!
No talk of programming would be complete without mentioning Lego Mindstorms! Once a kid realizes she can bring a robot to life, there’s just no turning back. Oh, and if your kids falls in love with Lego Robotics, consider getting them involved in one of the many, many First Lego League team competitions. There’s probably a group close to you.
Their mission gives me warm, geeky fuzzies:
“To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Graduating to Real Programming Skills
Maybe your kids ready to move on to the real deal or you’d like try your hand at programming. There are amazing free resources for this level too!
Invent an Android App. The App Inventor website has made it as simple as possible to design your own Android App and even sell it in the marketplace. Work through the tutorials to learn the basics and get more specific help in the forums.
Hackety Hack will teach you the absolute basics of programming from the ground up. With Hackety Hack, you’ll actually learn the Ruby programming language…which is awesome! Ruby is used for all kinds of programs, including desktop applications and websites. And, for what it’s worth, Ruby programmers are in high demand.
One of the best ways to learn programming is to take a class. Some of the most prestigious colleges offer free online programming courses. The Stanford School of Engineering has an introductory Programming Methodology course and an Introduction to Robotics course that sound pretty darn incredible.
I recently heard a story about a 13 year old boy who took Stanford’s programming class online and asked his dad to take it with him. What an amazing experience that would be! Being challenged together, working collaboratively as equals, having break-throughs together.
I’m told the best part was when the son figured something out first and got to explain it to the dad. The experience brought their relationship to a whole new level.
So, you see, computers and programming and logic aren’t boring or lifeless or scary at all. In fact, they can be wide-open doors to creativity, imagination, curiosity, problem solving skills and teamwork.
I hope you find something wonderful in this list. And, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll considering adding programming & logic to your family’s educational journey.
Laura is a micro-business advisor and a mom of four in her first year unschooling 4 year old twin girls. When she isn’t playing Tangoes with her girls, she can be found blogging about how you can create a self-made life you love at BrainyFeet.com.