The recent free courses from Pluralsight on teaching kids to program really got me thinking about this subject.
There seems to be a big backlash in development community against the idea that everyone should learn to program.
I’m not sure exactly where it is coming from, but I suspect it has something to do with egos and fear.
Even within the development community, there seems to be a distinction between “real programmers,” and “not real programmers,” based on language or technology choice.
I have to admit, I have been guilty of this type of thinking myself, because a very easy way to increase our own value is to decrease the value of others.
But what I have come to find is that not only is the distinction between “real programmers” and “not real programmers” a false dichotomy, but that the distinction between a programmer at all and a layperson, is also not quite as clear, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Not everyone should be a programmer
It’s true. Just like not everyone should be an accountant, or not everyone should be a writer, but I think we can all agree, that everyone should understand basic math and be able to write.
Learning how to program and doing it professionally are two distinct things and they should not be lumped together.
It it pretty hard to imagine a working world where no one except writers could write.
Imagine wanting to send an email to your boss, but you don’t know how to write, so you have to ask the company writer to do it for you.
That is what the world would be like if we insisted that only writers needed to learn how to write.
But perhaps you think I am just being silly, I mean the need to write is so prevalent in everyday situations, but the need to program isn’t.
But I challenge you to consider if whether it is actually true that the need to write is much more prevalent than the need to program, or because everyone knows how to write, the need for writing is just recognized more.
Imagine if everyone you interacted with on a daily basis knew how to write code. Imagine that, just like everyone has a word processor on their computer that they know how to use, there was an IDE that allowed them to write simple scripts.
Think about how that changes the world.
The first thought that comes to my mind in that world is that there would be APIs everywhere.
Every single program would have an easily accessible, scriptable API, because every user of that program would want to be able to automate it.
In time, the way we viewed the world would completely change, because just like products today are designed with the thought that users of those products can write, products of that time period would be designed with the assumption that users of those programs can program.
Suddenly everything becomes accessible, everything interfaces with everything else.
Doctors build their own simple tools based around their specific process by combining general purpose software from their equipment.
There is a Pinterest full of code snippets instead of pictures.
Every device and piece of software you interact with has an API you can use to automate it.
The point is that we can’t conceive what the world would look like if programming was as prevalent as writing, but such a world can and should exist.
Computers and technology are such a large part of everyone’s lives that it is becoming more and more valuable to be able to utilize this so common element.
It starts with kids
We have to stop thinking programming is hard and realize that it is one of the easier things we can teach kids to do.
If a person can grasp and use a complex language, such as English, that person can learn how to program.
Programming is much more simple than any spoken or written language.
But, we have to stop erecting these artificial barriers that make programming computers seem more difficult than algebra.
Is there really much difference between an algebraic variable and a variable in a programming language?
Isn’t most mathematics solved by learning an algorithm already? Why not at the same time, teach how to program that algorithm? Not only would it make the subject much more interesting, but it would build a valuable skill as well.
We spend a great deal of time educating kids with knowledge they will never use—basically filling their minds with trivia. But, how much more likely would they be to use the skills learning to program would give them?
What was hard yesterday is easy today
Calculus, geometry, probability, the structure of a living cell, electricity… What do they all have in common?
These concepts used to be advanced topics that only the most educated in society knew about or discussed, but now have become common knowledge that we teach children in school. Ok, well maybe not calculus, but it should be.
Over time, the concepts that only the brightest minds in a field could possibly understand are brought down to the masses and become common knowledge.
It is called “standing on the shoulders of giants,” and it is the only way our society advances as a whole.
Imagine if it was just as difficult for us to grasp the concepts we are taught in school as it was for the pioneers of that knowledge to obtain it… We wouldn’t ever advance as a whole.
But, fortunately, what is hard yesterday ends up being what is easy today.
The same will eventually happen with computer programming, the question is just how long do we need to wait?
It’s all about breaking down walls
I try to never say that something is hard, because the truth is that although there are some things in life that are hard, most things are easy if you have the right instruction.
It is natural for humans to want to think the knowledge or skills they have acquired is somehow special, so naturally we have a tendency to overemphasis the difficult in obtaining that knowledge or set of skills, but we’ve got to work through the fear of job security and egos and remove the veil of complexity from programming and make it simple.
The value we can bring by helping others to understand the knowledge we have is much greater than the value that using that knowledge alone provides.
Sophia got her first introduction to the iPad at about 3 months old.
As soon as she could sit in a rocker chair my wife and I let her start playing on the iPad.
We started off with just one game, Interactive Alphabet by Piikea. It is basically a game that goes through the Alphabet and lets the baby interact with some of the pictures.
We added a few more ABC type of games as she got a bit older, but we mainly just let her play with that one game, because we figured it would be great to let her start seeing letters and learning the alphabet as early as possible.
Right from the get-go she would swat at the screen. She didn’t immediately understand the cause and effect, but she quickly grasped the idea that when she hit the screen, something would happen.
After a while she became pretty good at being able to do the simple things in the ABC game. She would still swat the screen, but purposefully swat certain areas in order to do something like build a sandcastle.
Around 12 months, we started adding a bunch more apps. We added some interactive books and a couple of simple games.
Sophia was learning how to do many more things in the apps. She could point with a couple of fingers and very purposefully touch certain areas of the screen.
She really didn’t have any concept of touching and dragging though, and would often run into problems of having one hand leaning on the iPad which was causing the other hand’s touches not to register.
She’s now 18 months and she is an iPad master.
Sophia can now:
- Turn on the iPad
- Unlock the iPad
- Pick which app she wants to play out of her folders
- Use the home button to exit an app
- Double press the home button to switch to a recent app
- Navigate through menus in apps and get back to the app
- Use the table of contents in books to pick the page she wants
She also asks for the iPad by name. She has about 40 apps on the iPad that she subsumed from my wife. It seems like she is learning something new every day now.
The world is changing
Our children, especially the youngest ones, are growing up in an entirely different world than has existed ever before.
I know this has been said many times before and it could be argued that my generation also grew up in an entirely different world than my parents, but I think the change we are seeing now is much more substantial.
I predict that this generation will be known as the tablet generation. With Windows 8 now released we are going to see a rapid decline of non-touch devices. In a few years all laptops will be touch screen retina displays.
There are some fundamental changes going on in how we interact with computers and even what defines a computer.
Yes, I know you’ve heard all this before, but why is this important?
It is important because the real shift I see is the shift between a primarily analog focused world view to a primarily digital focused world view.
For me the iPad or the computer is an attempt to replicate some process or experience in the real world. No matter how long I work with computers or use these devices, I cannot escape my world view. Analog always comes first.
For our children things are different.
I can’t say for sure that picking up a pencil and being able to write is a skill that will even be necessary.
It is very likely that this coming generation will view things through the digital lens first and the analog world will be secondary.
I don’t mean they’ll be jacked into computer all day and live in a virtual world, but I do think that while we try to relate software to tangible things the coming generation is likely to view software as the primary and tangible objects as secondary.
Think about music. Ever had an 8Track? How about a cassette tape? CD anyone?
How do we think of music today? One word comes to mind—MP3.
What started out as a physical record eventually lost its purpose and is now so heavily digital that we tend to think in terms of the digital and don’t even consider the tangible anymore.
The same thing is currently happening with books, movies and to some degree money.
Why we let Sophia be an iKid
With the changing world, computer literacy is more important than ever before.
Even in the world we live in now, it is just about impossible to get any kind of non-labor intensive job without being able to use a computer.
If computer literacy is arguably going to be the most important skill for anyone to have in the future, why not start as young as they start to show an interest?
I think it is a huge asset to develop in our children the ability to use a computer as easily and mindlessly as the ability to eat with a fork and a spoon.
I wish I had that ability. I could be so much more efficient if I would stop writing down lists on pieces of paper and instead pull up my iPad or other tablet to jot down ideas and completely replace paper in my life.
And sure I could learn to wean myself off of the analog world, but I want my daughter to be able to think first in the digital world. She’ll be way more efficient and see things from a better perspective than I ever will.
Aside from that, my wife and I find that the iPad is an excellent learning tool to help Sophia learn to learn.
There are so many things she is able to teach herself using that iPad.
- Has a vocabulary of over 100 words
- Can count to 4 in order and count actual objects
- Can say most of her ABCs
- Can recognize most letters
- Can name many animals and objects
Much of what she knows she learned at her own pace based on what she was interested in playing on the iPad.
For example, one week she’ll be playing many of the numbers apps. For a whole month she just wanted to do alphabets.
The iPad gives her the freedom to be able to choose what she wants to learn and to do it effortlessly. She is developing the skills to be able to self-educate. Sure, we still read books to her and try to teach her, but she seems to get a large amount of her knowledge from what she learns playing on the iPad. (At least the reinforcement of what she has learned.)
Overall I don’t think there is any reason to stop her from playing on the iPad. I know some people equate it to TV, but I think it is fundamentally different. The apps she plays on the iPad are interactive. You can’t mindlessly sit and watch the iPad. Instead, there is a constant feedback loop that is not present with TV.
Also we can carefully monitor the apps she uses. The TV is an open system that brings unknown content into your house, where the iPad can be used as more of a closed system.
To summarize, I think we are preparing her for the future and giving her a huge head start in life.
How to get started
So you may be wondering how to best go about getting your baby or toddler started with the iPad.
While I’m not a child development expert, I can give you some advice from what my wife and I have learned in this process.
You can of course get a newer iPad or even another tablet, or the iPad mini, but just be aware of two things.
- Babies don’t have very precise coordination with their hands so small screen are going to be hard for them to use.
- Babies tend to throw things, especially when they get frustrated.
The next thing you need is apps. My wife, Heather, wrote up this section for me. So, if you notice the grammar is perfect and is written with a much higher skill level than my usual writing, that is why.
(Please let me know if you have some other ones appropriate for the ages. I’d like to make a nice resource for other iKid believers.)
3 Months – 12 Months
- Interactive Alphabet by Piikea. This is by far the best app I’ve seen for the youngest of kids. It has a baby mode which prevents babies from exiting by accidentally batting a menu button and most of the items respond to simple taps or swipes.
- Juno’s Musical ABCs by Juno Baby. This app also goes through the alphabet but with a musical theme. The interactions aren’t as neat as the Piikea app and the button to return to the menu is prominent and easily pressed.
- Peekaboo Baby. This is my app. Warning, it is very simple. I was learning MonoTouch and wrote it in a day as an experiment.
12 Months to 18 Months
- Seuss ABC, Green Eggs These stories have autoplay, read to me, or self-reading features and will say the word of anything the child touches on the screen. There is actually an entire line of the Dr. Seuss books, but I prefer these two. The ABC app is great because each letter is said multiple times. The Green Eggs app is my daughter’s favorite, and I suspect this is because so many of the words in this story (eggs, boat, house, mouse, car, train, etc.) are ones most 18 month olds know. These books are a little long so if you’re more interested in the stories, go with the Bright and Early Board Books instead of these apps. The Mercer Mayer, Little Critter books are also available and tend to be shorter in length.
- I Hear Ewe This neat little app has three screens of picture tiles: two of animals, one of vehicles. When touched it says: "this is the sound a [insert animal or vehicle here] makes:" I like this because it doesn’t require page navigation. A child can sit and do this for a short period and when they get bored, you can switch the screen for them. Sophia plays this occasionally at 18 months but it doesn’t hold her interest as much, so I suggest trying it at a little younger age.
- Pat the Bunny by Random House. There is both a paint and interactive option with this app. The paint seems to always crash, most likely due to the mad tapping of a toddler, so I avoid it. The read option has a bunch of items on the screen that kids can interact with (turn off a light, put shave gel on daddy’s face, wave bye bye, play peek a boo, etc.) I’ve never seen the real book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this app is better than the book. Changing screens is manual and may require adult help. There is an obnoxious Easter egg on every page that brings up the bunny.
- Princess Baby by Random House. I was actually disappointed there wasn’t more to this app, but Sophia has played it enough that it makes the list. It begins by having you “Choose your favorite princess.” Each princess has 3 toys that can be interacted with in a very limited way: wand, drum, ball, flower, blocks, cat. The princess can be put to bed, which Sophia likes doing over and over and over again.
18 Months +
- A Monster at the end of this book. Starring your lovable, furry pal Grover from Sesame Street, this app has a very cute storyline. In order to advance through the book certain tasks, such as touching knots to untie the page or knocking down bricks must be performed. This is another one where the app may be better than the book itself. One bonus: the pages are locked when Grover is talking, which keeps an eager toddler from advancing through too quickly. My daughter loved this book earlier on but I had to help her with some of the action pages and it was just recently that she started doing it all on her own.
- Another Monster at the end of this book. Starring Grover and Elmo, some of the tasks are a little trickier than the first book (matching colors, wiping away glue), but did I mention it has Elmo?
- Little Fox by GoodBeans. This is one of my favorite apps. It has 3 different songs to choose from and each has its own scene: London Bridge is Falling Down, Old MacDonald, and The Evening Song. Each scene is cleverly interactive and entertaining. Old Mac Donald has 4 seasons to select from and the interactions change based on the season. There is also a little "fox studio" with a ton of interactive objects used to make music.
- Nighty Night by GoodBeans. Adorable. The animals at the farm house need to go to sleep. This is done by clicking on the area each animal resides in and turning off the light. The animals respond to touch. Additional animals can be purchased (2 sets of 3 animals each).
- Itsy Bitsy Spider by Duck Duck Moose. Another fantastic app, this may be the one Sophia has clocked the most time with. In order to progress through this app, you must click on the spider. Each time the spider is touched one line of the song is sung and the spider moves. There is a lot to interact with at each spot and one the second time through the song there are decorated eggs the child can collect on the spider’s back. There is a cute little narrator fly that teaches the child about items the child clicks on (i.e clouds, the sun, rainbows).
- Ewe Can Count. This is a cute counting game where you count a random number of sheep, horses, apples, etc. There is a learning and a quiz mode.
- Logic Lite. This app is great because it teaches the complicated click and drag gesture. The full version has three additional tile sets: Numbers – match dots to the written number, Pictures – match a picture that contains a shape to the shape it contains, and Letters. The letters are great at 18 months, but the other two are too complex.
Your mileage may vary
Having your little one use an iPad might not work out as well as it has for us, so I think it is only fair to disclose some of the circumstances which govern our life that may help to make our experience successful.
- My wife is a stay at home mom. She used to be a techie, but left the digital world to raise our daughter. I only bring this up, because she interacts with Sophia all day. If we were putting Sophia in day care, I would be more hesitant to give her the iPad during our interactive time with her. (But I would probably try to get the day care to let her use it.)
- We have almost 0 TV in our house. I don’t watch any TV at all or movies. My wife very rarely watches TV and Sophia never does. I think this is important, because if she were watching TV, I would also be a bit more hesitant to let her play with the iPad as much.
- We do LOTS of other activities. Just about every day of the week she has either swimming, gym class, play date, or something else going on. My point here is that she gets plenty of outside time, social interaction and physical activity.
- Sophia took the to the iPad right away. We didn’t have to force it on her or even encourage her to use it. I don’t know if other kids are like this or not, although I suspect most would be.
So doing the same thing my wife and I are doing might not be the best for you family—you’ll have to decide for yourself—but as far as our daughter has been concerned the experience has been overall positive and beneficial.