By Wendy Donahue
Kids in more than 150 countries, and President Obama, dabbled in computer programming as part of the recent weeklong Hour of Code (hourofcode.com) initiative, dreamed up to introduce anyone as young as 4 to the fun of creating technology, not just using it.
Whether your kids’ elementary, middle or high school participated in the movement, they (and you) can try writing code at home with free introductory lessons from Code.org/learn (code.org/learn). Those include online tutorials with Anna and Elsa from “Frozen” or with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Angry Birds. (No device on hand? There are even “unplugged” tutorials using old-fashioned paper and pencil.)
Older kids can try tutorials with Khan Academy, the not-for-profit started by a former hedge-fund analyst who was asked to help his niece with her math homework from afar. None of Khan Academy’s Hour of Code lessons require experience, but they’re designed primarily for ages 8 and older. Even so, a teen who’s already taking an app development class might scoff. “We’re writing real code,” one such son told a colleague of mine.
Working partway through the Hour of Drawing with Code (khanacademy.org/computing/hour-of-code) mobilized a branch of my brain that had been napping since college calculus, though it in fact required only rudimentary math. The in-my-head calculations necessary to draw the horizontal line in a capital H hurt a little, but nailing it never felt so satisfying. (One grumble: I wish I could disable the prompt that superimposes over my typing; it would be easier to see what I was doing. Maybe I can learn how to do that in another lesson, which is not to imply that I would use my new capabilities to hack into Khan’s system!)
At my 8-year-old daughter’s school, some kids earned their Hour of Code certificate using Lightbot (lightbot.com), a drag-and-drop app that she excitedly introduced me to after school. We collaborated in a new way to solve two of the puzzles together, which increase in difficulty with each level. The player chooses codes and arranges them in an order that moves the little Lightbot through a geometric arrangement to its finish line, not unlike a board game. Doing so is now a shared joy that will fill the hours on the road to our holiday destination: Grandma’s house.
“That code is all it took to get Elsa to move 100 pixels to finish drawing a square,” Partovi said afterward. “Drawing a line to finish a square isn’t rocket science. And that’s exactly the point. That’s how computer science starts. You don’t write a fully-fledged game when you write your very first line of code, you write something as simple as PRINT “Hello World.”