Programming with kids

Wednesday 15 May 2002

Dustyscript is a programming language with a good goal: be good for an 8-year-old to write programs in.

Unfortunately, I think they’ve missed the mark. In my experience, what matters when writing programs with kids is not the complexity of the syntax. No matter how you design the language, there will be syntax, and that syntax will seem artificial to a kid (as it would to anyone first starting to program). There’s going to be a certain amount of, “that’s just the way you do it”. Simplifying syntax is a good thing, but it isn’t the main thing.

The main thing is the power of the language, and by that, I don’t mean object orientation, or inheritance, or introspection, or infinite precision integers. When dealing with kids, the power of a language boils down to one thing: Can I make colorful things move around on the screen? The Logo folks understood that. I’ve used Python and Pygame to engage my son in programming, with moderate success.

The fact is that kids these days know what computers are for: they are game machines that can do awesome things. When you sit down with them to entice them into writing programs, they are going to expect those programs to do awesome things. The more directly they can express their intentions to the computer (“Can we make the aliens shoot the guy, and the guy blows up?”), the more success you will have with them.


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