So how might you go about introducing your kids to the joys of computer programming if you’ve never really experienced programming yourself and just looking at a few lines like:

<?php
for ($i = 1; $i <= 10; $i++) {
echo $i;
}
?>

has you  breaking out in a cold sweat. Please don’t feel bad! That bunch of lines is pretty head wrecking to look at if your idea of language is that it’s for reading books. After the mess of half phrases,  numbers and punctuations is explained you might agree that it’s kinda cool and set about trying to broaden your 9 year old’s horizons by setting up a PHP programming environment on your laptop. But 4 hours into your Sunday morning your sobbing into your hands because you’ve been onto 10 different websites, downloaded a bunch of software and you still don’t really understand what “compile” means and why you are getting an error message (you missed a semi-colon on line 12).

Meanwhile your kid has headed off to the shops with Dad for lattes and new shoes.

There must be an easier way to introduce them programming right? Yep. There’s load of different options – and my first two suggestions don’t even involve plugging in a computer!

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1) Write a Program With Pen & Paper.

Better for older kids – maybe 7+

This activity gets right down to the nitty-gritty fun bit of programming with a few minutes. I found this idea on the Code.org – a website behind the upcoming Hour of Code week (8th – 14th December). The activity & accompanying teacher’s plan has been put together by Thinkersmith and Traveling Circuits – and it’s a pretty cool!  The idea is that you program one of your friends “the robot” to follow a set of instruction – in this case to build a tower of plastic of cups. The robot heads off to learn the “language” while the rest of you write the “program” using the agreed “robot vocabulary”. After the robot receives the instructions there is no talking! He or she must just following the instructions. If something goes wrong you have to “debug” and start again.

Even though I’m not a teacher I thought the teaching plan was really useful, especially the idea of introducing your kids to words such as “algorithm”, “coding”, “debugging”. If you’re at home with the kids you should be able to adapt it to a fun afternoon activity using whatever you have at hand. I’ll give this one a go soon and post up there results. In the meantime download PDF and give it a go yourself.

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2) Play a Board Game

For kids 3 and up

Robot Turtles Board Game
Robot Turtles Board Game

I first heard about Robot Turtles board game from the wonderful Make magazine. It was invented by a Dad called Dan Shapiro and has a great Kickstarter story behind. The game “sneakily teaches kids programming concepts” and is for ages 3 and up so it’s perfect for my two: ages 3.5 and 6. Each player becomes a “Turtle Master” and moves their turtle around the board according to the “program” built up with cards. And there are turtles with lasers! And if you make a mistake you can shout out “undo”! Awesome!

It’s finally in shops – in Ireland even! It’s on my wishlist for Christmas so hopefully the kids will be playing it before the month is out.

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3) A Step by Step Online Tutorial for Absolute Beginners

Kids 5+ with assistance

There’s no need really to go through the trauma of trying to get a application programming environment set up on your computer if you just want to get the know the basics of computer coding / programming. These days there are some fantastic All-In-One online tutorials that are very easy to follow and really help you understand the basic concepts of programming. Again the following links are from the wonderful resource Code.org. There are a number of tutorials for absolute beginners, designed to enable you to learn to code in one hour and they hold your hand each step of the way. There’s nothing to download – it just loads up in your browser and offers you plenty of instruction. You could let a 7 year old off on their own with it (if they’re able to read the tips and instructions) or perhaps if they’re a bit younger you can do it together and get them to drag the block to the canvas. Start this Angry Birds Code tutorial here or try out the lovely Elsa Snowflake for your Frozen freaks!

hour-of-code-angry-birds

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4) Beyond the Very Basics

Once you and your kids get your head around the very basic fundamentals of programming you can move onto something like Scratch. It’s similar in style to the above online tutorials – you still drag and drop blocks of code but there are a lot more options and you can really build more complex and interesting stuff as you improve your understanding. You can download Scratch to your iPad or Tablet or use in your browser. I know they use Scratch as tool in schools across Ireland in all sorts of activities in the classroom so you’ll either be giving your kids a headstart or they might be able to teach you a thing or two 🙂

Enjoy.