Starting From Scratch: Developing Interest

Teaching kids coding is one of the current buzz topics in schools, and rightly so. Programming is a vital skill, so much so that the National Curriculum in the UK–the government’s official guidelines on what schools are required to teach–has recently been updated to include the subject from a very young age.

My six year old has already come home talking about debugging algorithms, words I never used in all my years of schooling. I wanted to be involved in this journey with him and this new post series will follow our adventures in learning more about robotics, programming and more.

In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to teach a child something they’re not interested in knowing. Before I begin discussing codes and programming languages, I wanted to get my son interested in the subject at a surface level. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to begin introducing coding to both our lives, as three events have all coincided into a perfect storm of programming potential.

Pure Concentration © Sophie Brown
Pure Concentration © Sophie Brown

Firstly, we were invited down to the Cannybots studio in Cambridge to experience playing with their programmable robotic cars firsthand. Cannybots have been putting robots into schools for several years now and are currently expanding into the home market. Their Kickstarter for robot car kits that can be built at home was fully funded within hours of launch and has currently raised over three times its original goal with over a month left to run, and it’s easy to see why. During our time at the studio, my son fell in love with the cars. He drove them Scalextric style around race courses, drag raced them, sumo wrestled, jousted, and solved mazes. The tracks can be printed at home and easily designed in Photoshop as the cars simply follow a black line–I was imagining replicating Disney ride tracks to create my own courses within minutes. The cars will even follow basic black electrical tape on the floor so a room-sized course could be created for just a dollar or two.

Cannybot Drag Racing © Sophie Brown
Cannybot Drag Racing © Sophie Brown

The Cannybots can be controlled either through a free remote control-style smartphone app that is similar to any other RC car controller, through voice control, or through a plain English text app called Cannytalk, into which children can type instructions such as “go forward, turn right, go forward” to help the bot navigate color based mazes. This is similar to the robots I was programming in elementary school way back in the mid-90s, only far more user-friendly. Programming via Raspberry Pi is also an option, and the car’s body can be customized and 3D printed with free software, making them ultimately customizable. After only an afternoon playing with the bots, our son was hooked and I know a kit will be high on his Christmas list.

BB-8 is Watching You Work © Sophie Brown
BB-8 is Watching You Work © Sophie Brown

A few weeks after our visit to Cannybots, my husband surprised me on our wedding anniversary with my very own Sphero BB-8 droid. Although BB-8 doesn’t have the same level of customizable play as a Cannybot delivers, he does make an amazing (if expensive) introduction to robotics. So far we have created traps for him, discovered how his movement differs depending on what surface he is traveling on–this was especially hilarious on my mother’s shiny wooden floors where we also discovered we can make him drift–and scared our cats half to death on more than one occasion. We have also constructed buildings from wooden blocks and knocked them down, with my son learning that the faster the droid is moving at the moment of collision, the more damage will be incurred. We are currently planning to build a maze and time BB-8 to see how quickly he can escape from it while in “Patrol” mode, and which of us can drive him out fastest. It is fascinating seeing my son thinking up new ideas for how we can use BB-8; sparking the imagination is a really key point in all S.T.E.A.M. education.

Math Homework Online © Sophie Brown
Math Homework Online © Sophie Brown

The final thing that happened was my son’s sixth birthday when we gave him his own laptop. Although sounding extravagant on first mention, the computer is an old one of ours that has sat gathering dust for a few years, and which we arranged to have stripped back to basics before re-installing only the essentials. The track pad had stopped working necessitating using an old mouse, however this actually worked out well given that he is learning mouse control on the computers at school.

The laptop allows him to work on his homework projects, which often include a lot of research, without having to use the desktop which lives in my office. While we were using the iPad for this before his birthday, he is also frequently given links to online math games by his teacher and most of these cannot be opened on our iDevices. Since the laptop’s arrival, I have found that his interest in actually completing homework assignments has increased enormously, eliminating a lot of after school stress from both our lives. Very importantly, we will soon be using his laptop to begin learning Scratch and Python. While not everyone is in the position to give their child a dedicated laptop, if you have an old one lying around (ours was from 2008 and never worked very well), then do consider giving it a new lease on life.

In my next post I’ll be looking at teaching myself basic coding via Scratch to give myself a grounding before we begin coding together.

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