Saturday, September 27, 2014

Experiences from programming with kids

I was kind of scared beforehand but afterwards I felt just great. Couple of hours ago I was teaching 1st to 6th graders programming and it was so much fun! Let me share with you my experiences so that you can do the same thing somewhere else.


Keinutien ala-aste (elementary school, grades 1-6) in Helsinki decided to organize a special school day on Saturday 27th September, 2014. The theme of the day was the popup school. The idea is that anyone (kids, parents) can teach anything and the kids can decide what sessions to participate in. So I volunteered and decided to teach kids how to program. I wouldn't have done that unless there had been so much fuzz about code schools in Finland during the past year. Without that there probably wouldn't have been ready-made material available either so thanks to Juha Paananen et al. for making the and Turtle Roy available for anyone!


Because I wasn't sure what to expect when working with children I wanted to test it. First I tried my ideas with my 6 year old son who goes to the first grade next year. Since that went so well, taking into account his age, I was encouraged. Especially I got convinced how to start each session (I'll tell you more about that later). Next I tried the same things with my 8 year old son and his friend. I felt that I was pretty much ready for the show.

Couple of days before the school day I asked the organisers to check that our coding environment, Turtle Roy works as expected. The local IT teacher found out that it works with Chrome but not with IE. He tested moving and turning but unfortunately not sequences...

Right before the sessions

I was told that there are going to be 4 sessions with 20, 10, 7, and 16 students. Usually in code schools here in Finland each kid has a parent along and they work together in the same computer. In this case there were going to be even twenty kids and only one adult besides me! So I was a bit frightened if it's going to be just one big mess. One thing that I noticed when practicing the code school was that 8 years old kids need lot of support with the keyboard. So how on earth is it going to work if there are 20 children needing the support?! Well, luckily most of the kids were older than 8.

When I went to the computer room, I checked that everything works nicely. Oh shit, I wasn't able to type square brackets meaning that I couldn't write this important piece of code: s [fd 50, lt 90]. The brackets worked elsewhere but not in the command line of Turtle Roy. So we had to figure out a quick workaround, which was to write bracket somewhere else and copy it from there to the command line. (The square bracket issue has been fixed.)

Content of one session

Let me next describe the basic structure of each session. I decided to follow the steps described in the Turtle Roy Github page. Besides that I added one important step to the beginning, right after the introduction.


First I introduced myself and told that I'm like a professional football player: some people pay me money for doing something that I feel is my hobby; I'm a programmer. Next I asked who has used some computer program this week. After only some of the kids raised their hands I asked another question: who has used a mobile phone or played any computer games this week? Now when everybody had raised their hands I explained them that the games are programs as well and someone has programmed them. I explained them that programming means that someone tells the computer how to behave and today the kids are going to do exactly that.

I had asked them to form pairs. One reason for this was that it halved the amount of helping we had to give for the kids. Another reason, which I told them, was that programming quite often is pair or team work. So these kids started their career by pair programming. :)

Practicing without (real) computers

Inspired by the experiences from ICT-portti I decided to start without computers first. I told the kids that I'm a computer now and they need to program me using the commands: "move forwards", "turn left", "turn right". Their task was to transfer me from my current location to the other side of the room. I emphasised that I won't understand any other commands. So for example if someone said "jump", "move" or "go left", I replied: "I don't understand the command".

The students got the idea quite nicely and every group managed to get me to the goal. Also in each group I got wrong commands. This helped me when getting to the next stage. Let's start programming with the real computers but remember kids, you have to be very specific when giving commands for the computer!

Moving and turning

We started the Turtle Roy programming with the simplest command that I had written to the whiteboard: fd 50 (move forward). This was trivial for most of the kids but even here some of the youngest needed a bit of help. The next commands were naturally about turning: lt 90, and rt 90.

When everybody got their turtles moving and turning, I encouraged them to try what happens if they write e.g. fd 100 instead of fd 50. This was actually one of my key thoughts: the kids should try and see what happens because that is actually quite an essential part of programming many times. In other words, there are no mistakes or wrong solutions. The only mistake you can make is not to try.

Since by trying (obviously they try what happens with the command fd 1000000) they got quite a mess for their boards, I told them about the fourth command: clear.

I also explained what the number 90 means in the turning commands by drawing it to the whiteboard. Basically, if you want to turn a bit less, try e.g. lt 30. If you want to turn a bit more, try e.g. lt 120.

For the older students who already are learning English I told how the commands come from English. fd means forward, lt is left turn and rt is right turn.

The square challenge

Then I gave the kids a challenge: they should try to draw a square. I helped them by asking how they should command me if I was a computer again. The kids started typing: fd 100, lt 90,...

This was the place when the first ones got really excited when they realised how they can draw something more meaningful.

When the squares were ready, I asked the kids that wouldn't it be nice if they could make a square with only one command? In order to get there I asked if they saw any repeating pattern in the square commands I had written to the whiteboard: fd 50, rt 90, fd 50, rt 90, fd 50, rt 90, fd 50, rt 90. This was a nice step to the next phase.


The sequence was the most difficult thing during our session because of the bracket issue. So we had to help the kids a lot so that they were able to write the sequence command: s [fd 50, rt 90]. I felt that some of them had to give extra focus so that they don't get frustrated. But on the other hand when we got the command ready together, they got excited again.

Here I also advised them how to use the arrow keys so that they don't need to rewrite the same command again. So very quickly after the initial troubles the kids were able to draw a square by repeating the sequence command four times.


The natural follow-up question for the kids was that wouldn't they like to do the whole square with a single command instead of four commands? After all, computers are really good at repeating things that human beings find boring. So it was time to introduce the repeat command: r 4 (s [fd 50, rt 90]).

I remember how some kids responded with bigger eyes and smile when they run that command. Now they managed to do the whole square with just one command! And more was coming...

Let's play!

My last advices were that now it's time to play. Change the numbers in the latest command using the arrow keys. Don't repeat just 4 times, repeat for example 40 times. Don't turn 90 degrees, turn e.g. 50 degrees. And for some I also said that they can add more commands to the sequence. Anyway, the most important message I wanted to give them was that try things out, play with the turtle, and have fun! It's actually quite amazing what kinds of beautiful flowers, stars, or gearwheels you can get with that simple command when modified.

I also promised that the pair that draws the best picture gets a reward (lollypops). My tip for that was: those who are willing to try out different things are going to be the best ones.

This was again one of those moments that were full of wows and smiles. It was really rewarding for myself to get all the way here and see how the kids had learned so fast.

What not

I was prepared to teach them how to play sounds (e.g. play [c, d, e]), how to make the turtle speak (say "hello world"), or writing (print "hello world") in case there was any time left. But as I had guessed, the 40 minutes went so quickly that we didn't do these in any of the sessions. So neither had we time to see any "real world" code. Maybe that was just a good thing because I had some Java code open in my laptop at that time...

If there would have been another session with the same kids, we would have probably tried to write some functions as well. It would have been really interesting to see if they get it or not.


Like I said in the beginning, I had really good feeling about the sessions afterwards. I had some fears that mostly did not come true. Instead I saw many moments where kids learned fast, where they "just got it", and where they smiled when they succeeded.

The only thing that I was a bit disappointed was that none of the pairs helped the other pairs. I had hoped that I would see more advanced students giving help for the less advanced without asking it. But that didn't happen. I wonder if it has something to do with our school system or was it just how our setup was in the sessions.

One of the best things was when my assistant teacher, the local IT teacher, said that he is going to start using Turtle Roy in his own IT classes with 4th graders. He was convinced that this is a good method and it will be valuable for them. This teacher is btw going to be ahead of his time since programming will be part of the official curriculum in Finnish schools 2016.

Lastly I want to say my special thanks for all the kids who attended my code school. I had really good time there, thanks to you!