An Hour (or More) of Code

When I arrived as a freshman at my college dorm in 1993, I brought with me a thrift store shower caddy, an assortment of mismatched towels and sheets from home, and a computer, a hand-me-down monstrosity from my Dad, who had upgraded.  It took me three trips to lug all the components up to my room on the sixth floor, but I was proud of that behemoth that took up my entire desk because it meant I could type all my papers…in DOS.

In contrast, my roommate’s side was a dorm wonderland of perfection.  Her matching rosebud sheets, comforter, and throw pillows had been coordinated with care.  Her dresser boasted a decorative mirrored tray of beauty products and potions from a higher realm.  And on her desk gleamed a streamlined modern marvel of a computer, with a visually stunning and magically intuitive program called…Windows.

As any parent reading this knows, the ensuing twenty years brought widespread email, cell phone, and internet use; digital music, touch screens, tablets, smart phones, texting, Face Time, and global social media.  The world my children were born into runs on very sophisticated computers.

We’ve been cautious about computer and device use in our house.  They’re so easy to use these days, the learning curve is short and shallow.  But programming is another story.  Code is the language of computers, and, like any new language, only makes sense once you’ve learned the rules.

I recently learned that the Microsoft store at a mall in our area has a classroom space and offers free workshops, classes, camps, and gaming for all ages.  We went to check it out.

IMG_0416The first week, my 8- and 10-year-olds took a 2-hour Kodu Game Lab class.  Kodu is a super user-friendly game creation program that uses a simple visual code.  It requires no previous programming skills and is easy – and fun – to pick up.  The instructor gave the students just enough instruction and guidance to get them going, then allowed them to explore and create their own games, helping as needed.  The kids were completely focused on their task.  My girls created an intensely mountainous island with a go-cart that experienced different results depending on what obstacles it encountered.  As we left, they asked if we could get Kodu at home (it’s free for PC download; $5 for Xbox.)

IMG_0631 The second week, the same instructor walked the students through the Hour of Code with TouchDevelop, a Microsoft app creation environment.  It was a great follow-up session to Kodu because it built on their conceptual understanding of code, but TouchDevelop’s programming language takes that understanding further with its more complicated syntax.  Every student was completely engaged.  The lesson took them through basic code changes to a simple robot game.  Then they played their own game (which was way harder than it looked), and were free to experiment with other edits.

I admit, I’m from a past era.  I remember when microwaves were new.  And CD players.  And cable.  I’ve spent the last ten years in the suspended fog of child-rearing, far from the cutting edge of technology, fashion, or anything else that changes quickly.  But my kids are from THIS era, and I want them to understand it and be a positive part of it.  I have a feeling these introductions to code are just the beginning for us.

How much do your kids know about how computers and games work?  Have they ever tried an Hour of Code? Try it yourself first, or learn as you go together. – Learn about Hour of Code

Khan Academy – Learn computer programming and computer science for free

Tynker – A self-paced app and computer program that teaches kids the fundamentals of programming by building games, then transitions them to Javascript coding when ready