[LINK] Programming for Children

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Tue Nov 15 00:52:10 AEDT 2011

Programming for Children, Minus Cryptic Syntax

By PETER WAYNER  Published: November 9, 2011 

When Howard Abrams, a software engineer in Beaverton, Ore., wanted to 
teach his daughter, now 10, and son, now 8, how to program computers, he 
thought of the fun he had playing with Logo, the first programming 
language he learned. 

He quickly discovered that “Logo is pretty old school. Now there are a 
lot of different options.” 

So he chose to teach his children Scratch, http://scratch.mit.edu/
a language developed for teaching at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, both for its 
simplicity and the way it encourages collaboration. 

He uses it with fourth and fifth graders at his children’s school, at a 
computer club where they build games and tell stories. The fun, he said, 
is contagious. “There are days when I think of quitting this job and 
teaching full time,” he said. 

New and more sophisticated tools are changing the way that the next 
generation learns to program computers. 

Children can now create elaborate scenes and games without the cryptic 
commands that were once the only way to tell computers what to do. The 
most talented children can also use some of the sophisticated tools 
normally used by professional programmers, because the tools are now 
often easy enough for someone to pick up with only a few months of study. 

Mitchel Resnick, a professor of learning research at M.I.T.’s Media Lab 
who helps run the Scratch project, said that Scratch is effective with 
children because it fosters collaboration. “It should not just be about 
an individual sitting at a computer,” Mr. Resnick said. 

He estimated that there are about 2,000 new Scratch projects created 
every day, and many are based on the work of other students. “A third of 
the projects, more than 600,000, are what we call remixes. The kids are 
building on someone else’s work.” 

Mr. Abrams said he had grown to love the way Scratch encourages children 
to share. “At first, I was trying to get the kids to not talk,” he said. 

“But then I took a step back and let them socialize and work together on 
projects. That’s when things started to really happen. Someone would do 
something different, all would gather around, see it, and then go back to 
their own.” 

A similar tool from Carnegie Mellon called Alice http://alice.org/ gives 
children command over three-dimensional characters like the ones found in 
video games. Like Scratch, Alice focuses the children’s attention by 
giving them tiles with instructions that advance the plot of a story. 
With tiles like “jump” or “turn,” a student can tell a skater what to do. 

The system emphasizes logical thinking and sidesteps the coding errors 
that occur when a misspelling or an errant comma sends the computer into 
a petulant standoff. Caitlin Kelleher, a professor at Washington 
University, worked on creating this environment for simplifying 
storytelling when she was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon 

She explained that eliminating what computer scientists call syntax 
errors made all the difference in teaching children. “Kids can’t just 
understand that capital Bunny and lower-case bunny are different things. 
If you forget a comma in your English essay, your teacher doesn’t hand it 
back and say, ‘I can’t understand any of this.’ ” 

There are limits, though, to what the hard work of these university 
professors can do. My 8-year-old son was disappointed when he found that 
programming a bunny to smash a cellphone resulted in a slightly flatter 
cellphone, not an impressive explosion of parts. When I told him that he 
would need to issue direct instructions for every fragment from the 
phone, he began to have a newfound appreciation for video game designers. 

Tools like Scratch and Alice are what Mr. Abrams calls “gateway 
programming languages” because they offer simple introductions into how 
to organize the instructions. 

Older students in middle school or high school can go further and learn 
the computer languages used by professionals to build Web sites and 

Of these, the languages that control how Web pages arrange information 
are some of the most accessible, because they provide more control over 
where words and images are positioned. 

One site, CodeAcademy.com, http://codeacademy.com/ provides instruction 
on creating sophisticated applications for the Web using Javascript. The 
system leads the student with text-based interaction instead of icons, a 
method that is much closer to what many programmers experience. It also 
forces the students to be more attentive to punctuation and syntax. 

Another Web site, http://dontfeartheinternet.com/ offers video lessons 
that cover much of the same ground. 

Many of the grown-up languages have simplified versions for beginners. 

Devotees of the Ruby language, for instance, like KidsRuby 
http://kidsruby.org/ or Ruby for Kids. 

Just Basic http://justbasic.com/ is one of the newest versions of the 
Basic language, itself a project designed long ago to make programming 

Even some of the professional tools are within reach for smart high 
school students. Robert Nay, 14, became the talk of the Web when his 
iPhone game called Bubble Ball reached the top of the charts. 

He used Corona, http://anscamobile.com/ a toolkit from Ansca Mobile that 
makes it relatively simple to create objects that behave as if they’re in 
the real world. Many of the rules of physics are already encoded and the 
programmer only tells the objects where to go, not how to bounce. Corona 
comes with a built-in “physics engine” that fills in the details. 

Blender 3D, http://blender.org/ a popular program for creating three-
dimensional images, is built around Python, a professional computer 
language that is growing in popularity. Children can create working 
stories and simple games with its elaborately rendered 3-D worlds, just 
like the professional game designers and moviemakers who also use the 

All of this simplicity, however, doesn’t remove the need for inspiration, 
vision and dogged perseverance. Games like Bubble Ball take hours of 
polish, even when there are physics engines to fill in the gaps. 

Educators are beginning to recognize that simply making it easier isn’t 
helpful if the children aren’t ready to work. 

“As you start to bring it to audiences who don’t have to do it for their 
job, you have to start to ask the question, ‘Why do they have to do 
this?’ ” said Ms. Kelleher, the Alice creator. She thinks that many 
children are more interested in creating stories and defining interesting 
narratives than just moving arms or legs. Her new project, called Looking 
Glass, is intended to help them make short animated movies and share them 
with friends who can remix them. 

Mr. Resnick of M.I.T. said that children often find clever solutions when 
they explore what moves them. 

“We shouldn’t think of programming narrowly as a tool for a professional 
activity but as a means of expression,” he said. 

“Our goal is not just for kids to grow up and get jobs as programmers. We 
feel that everyone should be able to express themselves with online 

(A version of this article appeared in print in the New York Times on 
November 10, 2011, on page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: 
Programming for Children, Minus Cryptic Syntax.)


Cheers folks
Stephen Loosley

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