Six months ago, I wrote about my thoughts on the difficulties of teaching kids to write code. There were a few iPad apps that seemed to have potential to introduce kids to programming.

Unfortunately I've had a hard time finding a way to introduce my sons to these apps. After all, it's kind of a slippery slope. I want this to be fun, and I'm afraid if it seems like too much of a chore right off the bat it might be a while before I can try again. Also, when you open up the iPad there are potential distractions just two clicks away. If the app comes off as boring or too educational I'll get a "can I play Minecraft instead?" within minutes.

So, I've been biding my time and waiting for the right moment. Then, lo and behold, we were signing my oldest son up for supper activities this Spring when I saw an appealing option: "Coding with Kodable". Ooh, that sounded interesting. After reading the description I learned that Kodable is another "learn to code" app in the same vein as the ones I mentioned in my blog post last December. Well, of course we signed up for it and my son will be finishing up his "camp" today.

It has gone really well. He did it with other kids his age, so it was fun, and he really did learn core concepts in programming. Today was the first time I dropped him off at his class, so I hung around for a few minutes and watched my son work through the app's puzzles. I was pretty impressed with what I saw.

Now, keep in mind that we're talking about 7 year olds here. They're still learning how to write and spell, so typing in complicated blocks of code is out of the question. The goal is to start with the basics.

What is a computer program? It's a sequential list of instructions that tell a computer what to do. So, that's where Kodables starts. In this case, the instructions are geared towards guiding a "Fuzz" through a maze.  (The optometrist in me can't help but notice this is also a great exercise for laterality / directionality, spatial reasoning, etc). The child simply drags a series of arrows onto the screen to guide their character though its course. Just like in programming, the order of the instructions counts. Also, there can be more than one way to accomplish a task, but there is often a way that involves the least amount of instructions or takes a better approach (in Kodables, the better approach is the one that leads the Fuzz past the most coins). 

The next major concept is conditional statements. A program needs accept input then make a decision as to what to do next. In most programming languages this is done in an IF/THEN statement, eg) IF (weight > 200) THEN diet. In codables the condition the child can apply a color to their arrows that essentially says "if your Fuzz encounters a red square turn down".

 Conditional statements on Kodable. The instructions are the arrows in the top left side of the screen. Note the arrow with the red background - this is a conditional statement.

Conditional statements on Kodable. The instructions are the arrows in the top left side of the screen. Note the arrow with the red background - this is a conditional statement.

 

As people improve at coding they learn an important lesson: Don't work any harder than you have to. You oftentimes find yourself writing out the same sets of instructions multiple times. Whenever you find yourself in this situation you have to ask yourself if there's an easier way. Working smart,  not just hard, can result in huge time savings. In programming, two fundamental concepts that can help with this are loops and functions.

Loops can be used when repeating the same task two or more times. Consider the following maze on Kodables:

 Loops on Kodable. 

Loops on Kodable. 

The instructions would go like this:

  1. go right
  2. go up
  3. go right
  4. go up
  5. go right

That wasn't too bad to type out, but what if we had to do it ten more times? Or a hundred more times? This is where loops come in handy. A lop would essentially say:

  1. go right
  2. go up
  3. repeat the above steps 100 times

Functions are very similar in a lot of ways, except we don't necessarily duplicate the same instructions repeatedly. Instead, we save a set of instructions as a block, or function, that we can use, or "call", at any time. Consider this Kodable maze:

 Functions in Kodable. Note the three steps that are included in the function (seen to the right of the curly brackets { } on the right hand side)

Functions in Kodable. Note the three steps that are included in the function (seen to the right of the curly brackets { } on the right hand side)

To get through this maze the instructions would look like this:

  1. go right
  2. at the pink box, turn down
  3. go right
  4. go up 
  5. go right
  6. at the pink box, turn down
  7. go right

Notice any patterns here? Steps 1-3 are identical to steps 5-7. The "programmer" astutely noticed this and made a function. The function is located on the right side by the curly brackets { }, and contains the same block of instructions as steps 1-3 above. So, the new instructions will look like this:

  1.  run the function
  2. go up
  3. run the function

It doesn't look like much, but this is one of hallmarks of efficient coding and can save tons of lines of code, not to mention time,  as programs get longer and longer.

 A Kodable bug

A Kodable bug

Another very important feature kids will learn from Kodables is debugging. Coders rarely write a perfect program on the first try. Programming is very much a trial and error process: Write some code, run it, see where it screwed up, rewrite some code, and repeat. Just like real coding, you can run your program and watch each step as it executes to localize where the problem is coming fro. In Kodables there's segments where it purposely gives you a program with errors in it, and actually places a cartoon bug on the maze at the location of the problem. When you fix the programming "bug", your Fuzz rolls over the cartoon bug and squashes it. I know from experience there's nothing more satisfying than squashing those bugs.

In summary, Kodables seems to be a great way to get kids started in programming. It teaches them to look at a problem and break it into little parts, then give the computer stepwise instructions to solve the problem. It teaches concepts such as conditionals, loops, and functions. It also teaches debugging and, as a result, the acceptance of the inevitability of errors and the dedication needed to troubleshoot and fix your bugs.

In the future, kids that want to continue with coding will need to learn a programming language and its syntax. However, in my opinion, learning the basics of programming is much more important. And, after learning one programming language, picking up others is relatively simple once you master the fundamentals.

 

PS My 5 year old came along with me when we dropped my 7 year old off at Kodables camp today. After he saw his big brother solving puzzles on an iPad he wanted to do the same thing. We went to a coffee shop, downloaded the app, and spent an hour and a half "programming". He picked it up very quickly and we had a lot of fun together.



Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell
CategoriesTech