Opening up the world of coding

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Daughter playing with her new beheaded KUBO-robot. She is laying out the tag tiles code the robot later follows.

Coding is one of those skills I have wanted to learn for a while and every now and then I spend time learning it. However, I would not say that I could code. The farthest I would go is that I am beginning to understand how it works. I understand what functions are and have just learned why loops can be really useful. Not letting this inability to code (or create computer programs) stop me I wanted to open this world up for my child, now four years old, because I believe it is one of those skills that come as a close second to reading and math in the world ahead of us. And even though I do not think every child needs to be able to code, I believe all children benefit from understanding that computer programs and applications are man-made and if they don’t like them, they can build better ones.

Stage 1: Awareness and empowerment: As with many other skills such as reading and math, this too has different levels of involvement and complexity a parent can utilise on their path to opening up this particular world. I started by talking about the games and applications she uses while she was playing them. If something she wanted to do didn’t work, I explained that it is because the game is programmed that way and that someone wrote the code that way. At times I would also say that at some point she can code different types of programs if she so chooses. So basically I was building the mindset that these things are made and can be made differently and, more importantly, she can make them differently in the future. This was the first step and very easy to do as it is just building awareness and, I believe, also empowerment.

Stage 2: Understanding how computers work: The next stage came quite naturally through the wonderful Hello Ruby books by Linda Liukas. The link takes you to the books homepage. The first Hello Ruby book is a childrens’ story which introduces computational thinking such as dividing up problems into smaller pieces and giving exact instructions etc. We started with just reading the book. My kid loved it so we still read it and have read it quite a few times. At the end of the book there are tasks, which further open up this world. We have not done many of these yet, but are planning to now that my daughter is a bit older. We read this book when she was about 3 years old. Linda’s TED talk about this explains quite well what this is about and can be found here. This book also helped me understand the thinking behind coding and computers in general so it was useful in that way as well. So this stage is still in progress. There is also second book out that explains, again through a story, the hardware of computers and we just bought the third book that explains the internet. These are also on our list of things to read every now and then. Both also have tasks and games in them that we are moving into doing.

Stage 3: Coding something: I found this quite simple and useful app in iTunes App Store called Scratch Jr. It is also available in Android apparently, but as I am an Apple user, I have only used that version. I have not researched Scratch in-depth, but I read an article (Article in Finnish about options and the article about Sratch) about Scratch being used in schools as it is easy and inexpensive/free. So it sounded like a good place to start. It was. I downloaded it and within the next 2 hours I had programmed a little program utilising f.ex. loops, which I finally understood as I built it. I could have done it faster, but I wanted my characters to have a discussion and wanted an audio-track. It took some time to get the timing right. So Scratch Jr has ready made characters and scenes, which can be altered. Movement, dialog and reactions can be coded into these scenes with these characters. All is done through pictograms instead of words making this something that actually works with a four-year-old, who does not speak English and does not really read or write yet. I wanted to create my own program first, so I could show her what mommy had learned when she came home from daycare. When she did, I showed her the program and then asked her what she wanted to create. Within that evening she had coded her very first program by herself. It was that easy to use and she was that interested in it. She loves most the process of altering the scenes and characters and is less interested in their movement, but she is learning more and more of that as well. Of course we did the first ones together, but she did not need me for long. There are still features of the program we have not used, but my daughter programmed her first program at the age of four. It is quite amazing that we are living in a  world where a child can code before they read or write. Needless to say that I am quite proud of her. She has no fear whatsoever. She just tries stuff.

Stage 3b or 4: Bringing it to real life: Scratch Jr would have probably sufficed for awhile for us, but I also received daughter’s first robot by mail. We bought her a KUBO robot when they were crowd-funding its development and it arrived just about this time. I’ll write a review later, but it is a very cute looking little thing, that has blinking lights for different purposes. It is the one in the picture above, beheaded though. It is quite simple and its features are quite narrow. It has no sensors or ways to build it like LEGO robots or Thymio, but it is a way to learn about coding. My daughter loved it. It uses tag tiles, with easy to understand symbols with which one codes the little thing. As these symbols were quite similar to ones used in Scratch Jr, daughter had no difficulties in coding it. She just jumped right in. Personally I think KUBO is a bit too sensitive about how it is placed on the codes and strays from the code-path a bit too easily as it is designed to be used by kids 4-10 years old. Especially the 4 year olds are not that careful. I also think that for kids ages 6 or 7+ a robot with more possibilities like sensors etc. would be more useful. But for what I wanted daughter to learn and her age, it is just right. It brings the world of coding and computers into the 3D, makes it concrete and something she can touch.

What comes next: More coding of course. More games with the robot. When daughter can read and write then it is time to move onto a language that codes with words instead of pictograms. At that point the world is her limit. We will most likely invest in another robot a few years from now. As the market is being filled with so many different options, it is impossible to predict, which will catch our eyes at that point as the best solution. I’ll be sure to write about it though.

Copyright text and images: Satu Korhonen. You are free to try these experiments out, use them in your teaching. But instead of copying the text or images, link back to this page.

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