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Why should kids be interested in programming?

My 10 year old nephew, Bob, loves computer games. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that most self respecting 10 year olds love computer games and wonder what else a computer is for apart from computer games, Facebook, Bebo, and the occasional use of that legacy communications medium called email.

My nephew, Bob!

There was a brief period in the 1980′s as the home PC revolution was picking up speed when we thought we would all have to learn how to program a computer. Computers were taking over the workplace and without this skill we would all be unemployable. That brief period ended with the rise of the office suite and the advent of email. For many jobs we’re now expected to have familiarity with word processors, spreadsheets, email and web browsing. You only really have to know how to program if you’re a programmer, whether hobbyist or professional, but that goes without saying. One could argue that the evolution of our technological society where programming is mainly restricted to dedicated programmers is a natural division of labour. Why should a secretary or an advertiser or a salesperson need to program? Why would a 10 year old need to program?

Bob can often be found discussing the merits of the computer games he plays and how they might be altered or improved. For example, earlier this week he described how he’d like to play a game which was a first person shooter where the enemy stood still and only fired back several seconds after being discovered. The game description was accompanied with much hand waving and shooting noises. There were further descriptions of the types of guns that should be available and when they should be made available to the player.

Bob’s vision of a new computer game was born from a creative process. What Bob needs now is a medium of creative expression to bring that vision to life. In the same way a musical instrument can be used to create an infinite variety of music, or a word processor can be used to create an infinite variety of novels, it is through programming that you can create an infinite variety of games, and programming is the medium of creative expression.

Michael Sparks asked the question: If you were 7 again, what would you expect to find in a book on beginning programming? Apart from the usual conditionals and loops (I can hear the writer of the fictional Functional Programming for 7 Year Olds groaning) it would make sense to fulfil our junior members of society’s primal need to play, adapt and create games.

Armed with the knowledge that learning to program was the path to learning to create computer games, Bob was all too happy to sit down with me and walk through some basic Python programming. We started with a simple quiz game. The first decision was to whether to choose Python 2 or Python 3. I figured that extensive library support wasn’t necessary for writing a quiz so I plumped for Python 3.  With Python 3, you also get to avoid being asked sticky questions such as:

Why is it called raw_input() and not input()?

…  and …

Why does raw_input() have brackets and print doesn’t?

The quiz went down very well and we got to touch on several Python constructs. Here’s a cut down version of what we wrote together:

score = 0

fvcolour = input('What is my favourite colour? ')
if fvcolour == 'red' or fvcolour == 'blue':
    score = score + 1

sport = input('What is my favourite sport to watch? ')
if sport == 'football' or sport == 'Football':
    score = score + 1

print('You scored', score, 'out of 2')

Bob was very excited by this.  He was particularly excited about the fact that he could get the computer to ask any question and respond to any answer in any way he wanted it to.  After helping him install Python 3 on his own computer and showing him how to use IDLE, he sat about creating more intriguing and inventive quizzes.

I was conscious of the fact that I only see Bob once in a while so I set about looking for an online tutorial he could follow.  I was also conscious of the fact that he really wanted to write games, specifically first person shooters with advanced sound and graphics!  A few weeks ago I attended the informative and entertaining tutorial Introduction To Game Programming given by Richard Jones at Europython.  Richard pointed us to Invent With Python, an online (and dead tree) book “written to be understandable by kids as young as 10 to 12 years old” teaching them how to program games using PyGame.  And it has been updated to Python 3.  Perfect.  Bob is busy working his way through the book and I can’t wait to play Bob’s first person shooter!

How would you introduce your 10 year old nephew / niece / daughter / son to programming?

One Response to “Why should kids be interested in programming?”

  1. on 19 Aug 2010 at 16:39Patti

    Hi I’m Bob’s mum!!

    Since learning the bascis of python, Bob has been kept very busy updating his skills and tring new things. It’s been a perfect distraction on those not so nice “summer” days that we get, when there’s no choice but to stay indoors. His older brother, Max, has now also started to investigate the power of python. The boys’ aim is to create their own video games…….. it will keep them out of mischief for ages.