Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE S6

How to start your child with programming. (Kids & Computers)
by Heidi E. H. Aycock

Moving from concrete experience to abstract thought is one of the ways young minds mature. Once they've learned this skill, often between the ages of six and eight, most kids are ready to dabble in programming.

When the time is right, you'll need a few important tools--a programming language package, exercises to show how programming works, and meaningful projects to exploit the skills the child will learn. Experts and experience teachers can offer advice on choosing all three of these tools.

Choosing a Programming Language

While many early programmers learned to work with the English-like BASIC language, Logo is the choice of many educators today.

Logo was especially designed to introduce children to programming. Its simplicity, coupled with its power, make it an excellent beginning, according to Peter Gebhardt-Seele, of the Washington Montessori Institute and the Ohio Montessori Training Institute. With just two commands, children can create a wide variety of shapes.

>From the Concrete to the Abstract

Once you have a programming package in your hands, drop it. Start your child out with exercises in the real world. These exercises will help your child understand that he or she can give commands and the computer will follow them.

"I used to start--off the computer--with a little exercise where they moved according to commands," says Gebhardt-Seele. He would use the same two commands, FORWARD and RIGHT, that the children would give to the computer when they started using Logo.

Reversing the roles, Rachel Avery, chairperson of the computer department at Durham Academy in Durham, North Carolina, lets students give the commands while she plays the part of the computer. The students try to direct her to a spot in the classroom.

Not only does this introduce the concept of giving commands, but it also shows what happens when a programmer gives an incorrect command. Avery doesn't correct the students if they send her in the wrong direction; shell'll walk into a wall if that's what the kids tell her to do.

These experiments with commands are a good entry into the world of programming. "They're making a physical experience correspond to the abstract experience of what's happening on the screen," says Daniel Lynn Watt, senior research associate at the Education Development Center in Massachusetts.

Meaningful Projects

Even though a child's mind is just beginning to learn abstract skills, Watt says not to underestimate your child's ability to understand procedures. With procedures, you can build very interesting projects.

He builds procedure that draw shapes; then his students use those procedures to create pictures. Watt suggests designing projects around a child's particular interests. With one group, he wrote procedures that drew parts of boats. The children could make up their own boats from these procedures, saving their boats as new procedures.

At the Computer Museum in Boston, Natalie Rusk, education coordinator, uses a tool that knits the concrete world very tightly with the abstract. Lego Logo combines the popular programming language with the popular blocks so that children can build a computer-controlled machine.

Rusk has the children build something they care about--for example, a dinosaur on wheels. Then they decide what they want their creations to do--the dinosaur should roll forward, then roar, then turn. Finally, they figure out how to make it all happen with the computer.

"Their response is very positive, especially when they've built a machine they want to see move," says Rusk.

Making It Work for You

The key to introducing your kids to programming is to help them to understand what programming is.

"Help them to understand that if you do one thing after another in a certain way, you can predict what's going to happen next," says Watt.

Then find a copy of Logo, think up some lively programming problems, and have fun.