A 5 year old girl vs. CoderDojo

teaching kids to program

Posted by Alexander Todorov on Fri 13 January 2017

Adi @ Hello Ruby

In early December'16 together with my 5 year old daughter we visited an introductory workshop about the Hello Ruby book and another workshop organized by Coder Dojo Bulgaria. Later that month we also visited a Robo League competition in Sofia. The goal was to further Adriana's interest into technical topics and programming in particular and see how she will respond to the topics covered and the workshops and training materials format in general. I have been keeping detailed notes and today I'm publishing some of my observations.

The events that we visited were strictly for small children and there were mentors who worked with the kids. Each mentor, depending on the event works with up to 4 or 5 children. Parents were not allowed to interfere and I have been keeping my distance on purpose, trying to observe and document as much as possible.

Hello Ruby

Hello Ruby is a small book with colorful illustrations about a girl who embarks on adventures in programming. Adriana considers it a fairy tale although the book introduces lots of IT related terms - Ruby and gems, Firefox, Snow Leopard, Django, etc. For a child these don't necessarily mean anything but she was able to recognize my Red Hat fedora which was depicted on one of the pages.

The workshop itself was the introduction of the Bulgarian translation, which I've purchased, and had the kids build a laptop using glue and paper icons. Mentors were explaining to the children what the various icons mean, that viruses are a bad thing for your computer, what a CPU and computer memory are and everything else in between. A month later when Adriana started building a new paper computer on her own (without being provoked by me) she told me that the colored icons were "information" that goes into the computer!

After the story part of the book there are exercises designed to create analytical thinking. We did only a few in the beginning where she had to create a list of action sequence how to make the bed or get dressed up in the morning, etc. At the time Adriana didn't receive the game very well and was having some troubles figuring out the smaller actions that comprise a larger activity. We didn't follow through with the game.

Code.org

At the second event she was exposed to studio.code.org! At the time we were required to bring a working laptop and a mouse. I had no idea how these were going to be used. It turned out mentors gave each child a training course from code.org according to their age. Adriana started with the Course #1 because she can't read on her own!

At first it seemed to me that Adi was a bit bored and didn't know what to do, staring cluelessly at the screen. Btw this was her first session working with a computer on her own. After a while the mentor came and I guess explained what needs to be done, how the controls work and what the objective of the exercise was. After that I noticed she's working more independently and grew interested in the subject. She had a problem working with the mouse and after 2 days I've nudged her to use the TrackPoint and mouse buttons on a ThinkPad laptop. She uses them with both hands, so am I btw, and is much more adept at controlling the cursor that way. If you are going to teach children how to work effectively with a computer you may as well start with teaching them to work effectively with a track pad!

The courses are comprised of games and puzzles (which she's very good at) asking children to perform a very basic programming concept. For example instruct an angry bird to move left or right by using blocks for each instruction. By the time the workshop was over Adriana had completed 4 levels on her own.

Level 5 introduced a button for step-by-step execution of the program also colloquially known as debugging :). The first few exercises she had no idea what to do with this debugging button. Then the 6th exercise introduced a wrong starting sequence and everything snapped into place.

Level 7 introduced additional instructions. There are move left/right instructions as well as visit a flower and make honey instruction. This level also introduces repeating instructions, for example make honey 2 times. At first that was confusing but then she started to take a notice at the numbers shown on screen and started to figure out how to build the proper sequence of blocks to complete the game. When she made mistakes she used the debugging button to figure out which block was not in place and remove it.

After this level Adi started making more mistakes, but more importantly she also started trying to figure them out on her own. My help was limited to asking questions like "what do you need to do", "where are you at the screen now", "what instructions do you need to execute to get where you want to be".

Level 8 introduces a new type of game, drawing shapes on the screen. The hardest part here is that you need to jump from one node to another sometimes. This is great for improving the child spatial orientation skills.

Level 11 is a reading game in English. You need to instruct a bee to fly across different letters to complete a word shown on the screen. However Adriana can't read much less in English, although she understands and speaks English well for her age. In this case I believe she relied on pattern recognition to complete all exercises in this level. She would look at the target word and then identify the letters on the playing board. Next she would stack instruction blocks to program the movements of the bee towards her goal as in previous exercises.

Level 13 introduces loops. It took Adriana 7 exercises to figure out what a loop is, identify the various elements of it and how to construct it properly. She also said that was amusing to her. Almost immediately she was able to identify the length of the loop by herself and construct loops with only 1 block inside their body. Loops with 2 or more blocks inside their body were a bit harder.

Level 14 introduced nested loops, usually one or more instruction blocks paired with a loop block, nested inside another loop block. For example: repeat 3 times(move left, repeat 2 times(move down)). Again it took her about 6 exercises to figure them out. This is roughly at the middle of the level.

Level 16 was quite hard. It had blocks with parameters where you have to type in some words and animal characters will "speak these words" as if in a comic book. I'm not sure if there was supposed to be a text to speech engine integrated for this level but sounds like a good idea. Anyhow this level was not on-par with her skills.

The course completed with free range drawing using instruction blocks and cycles. The image she drew was actually her name where she had to guess how much scribbles the painter needs to do in one direction, then traverse back and go into another direction. She also had to figure out how big each letter needs to be so that it is possible to actually draw it given the game limitations in motion and directions. This final level required lot of my help.

Summary

I have never had any doubts that small children are very clever and capable of understanding enormous amounts of information and new concepts. However I'm amazed by how deep their understanding goes and how fast they are able to apply the new things they learn.

Through games and practical workshops I believe it is very easy to teach children to gain valuable skills for engineering professions. Even if they don't end up in engineering the ability to clearly define goals and instructions, break down complex tasks into small chunks and clearly communicate intentions is a great advantage. So is the ability to analyze the task on your own and use simple building blocks to achieve larger objectives.

I will continue to keep notes on Adi's progress but will very likely write about it less frequently. If you do have small children around you please introduce them to Hello Ruby and studio.code.org and help them learn!

Thanks for reading!

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