The World Inside The Computer
COMPUTE! welcomes Fred D'Ignazio, whose The World Inside The Computer column will appear each month.
Fred is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people, including:
Katie and the Computer; The Creative Kid's Guide to Home Computers; Small Computers: Exploring Their Technology and Future; Working Robots; and Electronic Games. He is presently working on two major projects. He is writing a series of books on how to create graphics-and-sound adventure games. He is also working on a computer mystery-and-adventure series for young people.
As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device.
Santa Claus, Subways, And Penguins
Fantasy And The Four Bases
Close your eyes and imagine the baseball diamond at Yankee Stadium. The diamond has four bases. This column also has four bases. What do the four bases represent?
First base is Fun.
Second base is Learning.
Third base is Kids.
Home plate is Computers.
In the middle of the baseball diamond is the pitcher's mound. As author of this column, I am like the pitcher. My ball isn't made out of cork or cowhide. It's pure fantasy. It is the world inside the computer.
This column will explore the many ways kids can use computers to learn and have fun at the same time. And on their own. It will focus on ways computers can be used to foster self-directed learning for each kid's own benefit and enjoyment.
Santa And The Penguins
Our society is feeling the impact of a computer implosion. It's as if Santa Claus' bag burst as he flew across the world, and the presents are tumbling to the earth, ending magically under everyone's Christmas tree. And all the presents are small computers. And it is Christmas all year long!
Has your computer just dropped down through the chimney and bounced into your living room? If so, prepare for a knock on your door. Answer it, and you will find that your front lawn is overrun with experts frantically trying to attract your attention. "We are ready to advise you," they say. "We can introduce you to guide books, cook books, checklists, disks and cassettes – whatever you need to operate your home computer."
By all means, let the experts in. And listen to what they have to say.
But don't expect to find an expert here in this column. I'm no expert. I'm not an educator. I'm not a psychologist or a game whiz or a scientist.
Who am I?
I'm a writer, and a storyteller. I'm also a parent–of a little boy (Eric) who's almost three, and a not-so-little girl (Catie) who's just turned six.
If I'm no expert, why do I think I can climb on my soapbox and tell you things about computers?
First, because of what I love. I love kids, fantasy, fun, learning, and computers. I think I can build a column around these five loves, a column that will be interesting to anyone who shares my affections.
Second, have you ever seen a penguin rookery? It's a small island or hunk of rock near the bottom of the world, on or near Antarctica. Its most distinguishing characteristic is that it is crowded, packed, jammed with penguins. Certain applications of small computers resemble a penguin rookery. There are experts and so-called experts crawling all over, bumping into each other, stealing each other's rocks (for nests), and occupying all the free space.
A penguin rookery is a good place to read about, but I have no intention of visiting one and pretending to be just another penguin (as Jacques Cousteau once did). The same goes for this column. In this column, we (you and I) will search for islands that are less crowded. We will look for computer applications which are vital, but which have not yet received a great deal of attention.
What are some areas we might explore?
First, computers for little kids. Let's say, arbitrarily, from age two up to age eight. We have all seen articles, games, and programs aimed at this group. But not so many as at other groups. As a father and lover of small children, I'd like to explore some new applications for computers here.
Second, education at home, computers are zipping into schools like commuters riding a New York Subway Express–quickly and in great numbers. To really fit in, the computers have to adhere to the schools' curriculum. That means, programmed learning, by the experts.
But how about education at home? Self-motivated and self-directed education? Education without a formal curriculum. Education without a game plan or an expert peering over the learner's shoulder. Education that is not just alphabets, multiplication, memorization, and drill. This is another area that fascinates me. I'd like to focus on it in this column.
Third, fantasy. The computer playground. A place for kids to act like monkeys and develop bulging muscles of the imagination.
Fantasy is the world of kids. It remains their world until they have heard enough facts and enough drivel to drive fantasy back–back into their mind's back burners and dark corners.
Computers are an immensely powerful tool of directed, solo, or group-oriented fantasy. Just witness the enormous popularity of electronic games.
Fantasy is natural for the child. It has a galvanizing, emotive, and energizing effect on whatever the child does.
A personal computer is like a wizard's staff, a magician's wand. It is a powerful tool for fantasy. It is a tool for the gods, and the gods within us. It is creativity unbounded. According to computer philosopher Greg Yob:
If you can program your computer, here is a tiny universe in which you can be God. Within the realms of expression that the computer can provide, you can build a world, define its laws, and watch the universe unfold. As your whim dictates, you can intervene at any time, and if you desire, the history of the universe can be changed and rewritten at will. Such a power this is!*
Yet, as they become increasingly popular, small computers are also becoming more focused, more regimented. They are becoming big business. They are becoming standardized and institutionalized.
But they are still ripe for fantasy. Safe in the confines of your own home, where you and your kids are the kings and queens of the realm.
A large dose of fantasy can make your child's use of the computer more playful, his or her learning more creative, more effective and long-lasting.
Fourth, and last, games. What kind of games? It doesn't matter, just so they're fun and produce a positive, constructive effect on the young game player.
Welcome to D'lgnazio's Game Arcade
I have eight programmable computers in my home. Running on those computers are over two hundred different games.
I have opened the doors of my home to neigh-borhood youngsters. As a result, my home has become the local videogame arcade.
It's an offer the kids can't refuse: they get to play games, hour after hour, and it doesn't cost them a single quarter. Needless to say, the parents are delighted with this arrangement. And I get lots of contact with young people, which I enjoy and which helps me with my books.
On any afternoon, there are usually three or more young people present, playing "canned" games or inventing new ones. The young people range in age from two years old (my son) to seventeen years old. Most, however, are between eleven and fourteen.
Afternoons are noisy in the D'Ignazio Arcade. There are squeaks, giggles, beeps, and booms. In the midst of all the silliness and fierce competition, though, two things are apparent. First, the kids are having fun. Second, they are learning.
During the course of this column, I'd like to write about the many ways kids can use computer games to learn and have fun. I think it will make interesting reading.
Adventure, Oracles, Picturebooks & Turties
So now you have it. I've emptied my pockets and dumped the contents into your lap. As a result, you probably have some idea of this column's flavor and slant.
But where is it going?
In the next few months, here are some of the topics I'd like to explore:
If Your Teacher Were a Turtle
Using Turtle robots to teach young children reading, writing, programming, directionality, etc.
Alice in Computerland
A visit to the world inside the computer. How the youngest children can learn the basics of computer hardware and software. Computer literacy for toddlers. Computers as a second language. Computers as a new mythology.
Robots, Games and Learning
A special chapter on using robots and robot games to teach things to kids. Kids love robots. I'll bet you do, too.
Special Games for Kids with Special Needs
If your child has a physical, emotional, or learning disability, this chapter is for you.
How to wean your toddler from her blanket or bottle and turn her loose on a computer. How to launch your young children on their first adventure–an exciting, educational experience.
The Computer Picturebook
The electronic book is on its way. It will come in the form of a microchip, ready to plug into your book player. But until it arrives, you can create your own books on your home computer. This column will show how you and your kids can create electronic picturebooks.
The Computer Oracle
What are your kids' favorite questions? Mine are: Why? What? How? Who? Where? This chapter shows you how you can turn your kids' questions–and your answers–into a game and a growing data base of information pertinent to your children's blossoming interests and knowledge of the world.
Kids can fire questions endlessly at you. You try to answer them, but you suspect that your answers flit like butterflies into their ears, ricochet around a bit, then flit back out, only a moment later.
We all learn things best by doing them. How did you first learn about people and their bodies? Did you have a dolly or a teddy bear? How did you first learn about automobiles, monsters, trains, airplanes, and spaceships? The way I learned was by building models.
You can answer your kids' questions with models – computer models. You don't build them using paper, plastic, or glue, but by creating simulations – miniature replicas of creatures, things, processes, or events pulled from the real world.
But why stick to the real world? Why not copy something directly from your child's dreams or imagination? With a little ingenuity, you can probably build a model of it on your computer. Then your child can run the model, change it, or add to it. Or replace it with something else.
A New Member of Your Family
Our family computer (the oldest one) is named ‘Ged,’ after the wizard hero of Ursula LeGuin's Wonderful Earthsea Trilogy.
When Ged first arrived on our doorstep, he was a dull and simple-minded character. He knew how to edit text, save and copy files, things like that. But that was about all.
So my kids began to teach him. They imagined what kind of personality he ought to have (wise but mischievous and tricky), and we gradually breathed life into what was once a dry and pedestrian computer.
Now we treat Ged like a member of the family. He has his own jokes, his own riddles, tricks, favorite expressions, and peculiarities. He is very much like a real person. That means he is constantly learning – and my children are his teachers.
This column will offer suggestions on how to turn your computer into a member of your family. Or several members, After all, just like a real person, he or she can have many faces.
On the way, I guarantee you, your children will learn many things about computers, programming, intelligence, and personality. And about themselves. In a sense the computer becomes a mirror – it reflects the kids, you, and your entire family.
Making Your Computer More Real
Have you ever read the Velveteen Rabbit? It's a story about a nursery toy – a little stuffed bunny – who becomes real to the child who loves him.
Kids tend to anthropomorphize everything. They see a person, a spirit, a gremlin, or creature inside or behind everything that exists. Ironically, this fantasy image of the world seems to make the things in it more real.
Computers can easily become more human-like and more real. We can program a personality into them. We can add a voice synthesizer. We can attach a speech-recognition device. There are many other options.
This column continues the discussion of the previous column: how to make computers more human-like and real. This process can be educational and a lot of fun.
Software And Reviews
Each month, I hope to come up with some original software, usually written in BASIC, and written so you can use it on one of the popular, low-cost computers, such as the Commodore VIC, the Atari 400, or the TI 99/4A.
In addition, I will often review books, magazines, and software that are relevant to that month's column. I want to awaken your curiosity and spark your imagination. I want to startle you and surprise you. But I also want to inform you.
Well, that's it. Welcome aboard the column. And while you're reading it each month, I'd like you to ask yourself one question, over and over:
WHAT WOULD I BE
WRITING ABOUT IF I WERE
DOING THIS COLUMN?
Then, if answering that question gets you all fired up, drop me a line:
P.O. Box 5406
Greensboro, NC 27403
I promise to write back, and I promise to listen carefully to your suggestions. There's a good chance I can use them in an upcoming column. And, of course, I'll give you the credit.
*Gregory Yob, "The Computer as a Gun: Personal Computers and Personal Autonomy," NCC'79 Personal Computing Proceedings, NY: American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), p. 9,1979.
The author, his daughter Catie and "Ged" the home computer. Like his namesake in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, Ged is wise. Unlike his namesake, Ged is mischeivous and tricky. Catie is Ged's teacher and is responsible for his personality.