I have very fond memories of Karel the Robot from my computer science days in high school. We used Karel, a little shape on the screen, to complete tasks, navigate around the screen, and learn to program. The syntax used to control Karel was fairly similar to Pascal, which we proceeded to learn next. Karel’s beginner-friendly language eventually evolved to teach a couple of other types of programming languages, but hasn’t been carried forward to allow kids to learn on today’s hardware.
Enter Move the Turtle, a graphical app for the iPhone and iPad for beginners to learn programming concepts in a hands-on, non-theoretical way. The app consists of giving instructions to a turtle who moves around the screen trying to capture diamonds. It teaches basic programming concepts through a game type interface. Kids can try out their programs and see them run visually on the screen as the turtle moves about. They can then edit their program to complete the given task. The turtle can be sped up or slowed down, depending on the length of the program.
The lessons contained within the app, under the Play section, are divided into three chapters of nine tasks each. The lessons teach you to program the turtle, step by step. The app guides you along, showing you what to do, while you choose which steps to do in a particular order to achieve your goal. You can make the turtle move, draw a line, draw with colors, repeat steps, save procedures for later, play sounds, and move to a certain position. Each chapter gets into more detail and precision, including conditional statements and repeated sections, ending with much more complicated tasks where merely following the directions won’t help you achieve the goal. For some, you will need to do some thinking and experimenting on your own.
The app keeps track of your progress as you learn, giving you a score out of 87 stars, 25 gems, and 3 trophies. You earn the stars as you complete each task. You get the gems within the tasks. And you are awarded the trophies for finishing each of the three chapters.
The Compose section allows you to create your own programs from scratch, without completing any particular task. You have access to all of the syntax that you learned in Play. You can also save procedures here, for use later.
Under Projects, there is a list of more than a dozen pre-written programs that you can include in your library, or just play with and learn how they work. This is a great place to spend time to learn things that you didn’t practice in the Play section. My Library contains all of the procedures that you have saved, and any of the built-in examples that you moved there.
Also, since different profiles can be kept in the app, more than one person can be learning how to program at a time. Your kids can learn at their own speed, and you can have your own profile to try things out.
The app appears to be packaged for young kids. The website says that it is for ages 8+, which sounds about right, if younger kids take their time. But the programming concepts are probably not for the very young, unless they are particularly interested in this kind of thing. Some of the analytical thought required in the later tasks isn’t something that someone both young and brand new to programming will likely be able to figure out easily. Still, kids with patience and persistence in learning will have a good time and will learn the concepts well, but parental guidance is suggested and encouraged (by me). You really have to use some intuition along with remembering what was learned in past lessons to complete each task. Kids shouldn’t rush through any of the lessons, and I encourage you to discuss why things worked and didn’t work with your kids each time. If they struggle with a concept, slow down and try to help them understand. There is often more than one solution to the more advanced problems, so if your kids struggle with any, encourage them to be creative.
I would have preferred there to be a bit more explanation for the more advanced concepts, but if kids are patient and have guidance, they will learn a great deal of logical programming concepts that are applicable for more than just computer science. If they get stuck, tap Task to restate the instructions or show the solution.
Move the Turtle is a bargain at $2.99, and is a great introduction to programming for kids (and adults who like turtles). I highly recommend it for all kids, whether or not they want to get into programming. The kind of thinking required to solve the tasks in the app is important for everyone to learn, for every field of study.