Four Tips to Get Your Kids Programming

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We live in a digital age, and our children are going to be living in an even more digital age. Twenty years ago, programming may have been a killer job skill, but now it is just a basic form of literacy. Here are four tips for getting your child to learn the new ABCs:

Strew Their Path

Educators use the term “strewing” to mean leaving attractive learning opportunities where they’ll get noticed. Perhaps it’s a bit sneaky, but it also leverages the fact that children are natural learners, especially where technology is concerned. The point here is that if you sit your five-year-old down in a chair and make them start memorizing regex codes, they are going to be bored faster than you can say =~ m/snap/. But if you give them a set of logic-block toys (Lego Mindstorms are great) and leave them alone, they’ll be coming to you for help debugging their robot army.

Avoid the Heat Seals

Learning to program for the first time is learning to hack. Not hacking in the sense of stealing all of Target’s customer data, but in the sense of taking things apart, figuring out how they work, and then changing it. Of all the thousands of intoxicating games out there, the best ones for budding little Turings are the ones that are easiest to take apart. This used to be true of lots of computer programs, and even early video games like Continuum. Unfortunately, big software companies have gotten very good at “heat sealing” their products, so you can play the game, but you can’t play with the game. This is why build-it-from-scratch games like Minecraft are so much superior to the competition. A few brilliant educational tools, like Scratch and Makey Makey, are specifically designed to break through the heat seals and get your kids hacking not just computer games, but your whole apartment.

Don’t Underestimate the Gendered Social Pressure

Presumably half of our future programmers will be women, and everyone will need to understand code. But middle school has not gotten the memo yet, and there is a huge wash-out of young women in programming through those years. The girls who are rocking their Python scripts in 7th grade all too often get told that programming is a boy’s-only-club. Until we can squash that libel, which we should all be doing, your daughter needs you in her corner of the ring. And if your son knows who Dennis Ritchie is, he should know who Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper are, too.

Accept That It Will Confuse You

One of the hardest things about watching your kids learn to program, paradoxically, is how far they’ll go with it. But think about it: back in the ’90s, an entire generation of programmers was looking at kids with their “gopher” and their “web”, and telling us it was all nonsense. The same thing will happen again, and again. The kids are all right, but they’re going to be doing things we’ve never seen, on platforms that don’t make sense to us, and they’re going to be doing it very, very soon.

And then, the game is to see how long you can stay abreast of what they’re doing…

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