My summer camps are over and the kids are back to school, but I’m already being asked by the parents of my campers about next summer’s camps. My Minecraft Engineering and Build Your Own Computer camps were very popular, but it was the Beginning Game Programming camp that got the biggest smile from both students and parents. Coding is a skill that is in demand, and parents know this… I get a lot of questions from them at the end of the camp about what sorts of resources they can buy to keep their kids moving forward with their learning. Fortunately, there is no slowdown in the number of coding books being released these days for kids. (And I’ll be honest–as an adult, my coding skills have also improved from reading these resources and working through them so I can better teach the camps.)
I’m always on the lookout for new coding books, and I’ve got two new ones that are definitely unique. If you’ve got a child who has expressed interest in learning to code games, both of these would make great introductions to the world of programming/coding. I’ll also include a list at the end of the reviews of my previous coding book posts. (And if you have any that you’ve found extremely helpful, please share in the comments–thanks in advance!)
My First Coding Book (DK, out now)
I’ve not had anyone younger than age 7 take one of my programming camps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to begin teaching a young child how to think like a coder. Using a computer and coding software might not come easy for young kids, so DK has created a unique resource to help parents and teachers introduce some of the basic concepts of logic, patterns, decision-making, and more.
The book is called My First Coding Book, and it uses flaps and pull-tabs and rotating wheels that kids are likely already familiar with in pop-up books. The book is VERY colorful and extremely engaging. (I had fun working through all the puzzles and tasks!) The graphics are eye-catching and the text isn’t difficult to read for a young reader. The book is 23 pages in length and the structure is well thought out. Here’s the Table of Contents and a brief description of what is covered and how.
How to be a Super Coder (pages 2-3): Explains basic concepts of finding a problem and using trial-and-error to locate a solution. Also, it covers solo versus teamwork and how creativity improves with practice.
Break It Down (4-5): A flap lifts to show the inner workings of a clock. Explains the idea of taking things apart to see how they work–a useful way to learn programming by looking at the work of others. It also covers breaking a task down into parts–a series of flaps walks readers through feeding chickens by breaking preparation steps down into their smallest tasks.
Build It Up (6-7): Explains how to organize the small tasks into a logical order. Building a robot, getting ready for school, and putting on socks and shoes are the “algorithms” that the reader will learn to develop.
Bug Hunting (8-9): Finding errors is a key component of coding, and this little two-page spread has the reader find mechanical errors in a conveyor belt that makes cupcakes. Small flaps identify whether a task is an error or not–there are four “bugs” in the process but eight flaps.
Jungle Escape (10-11): Pull-tabs on one side of the two-page spread allow the reader to actually “program” the movement of the explorer on the game map to navigate around a lion, snake, spider, and dangerous swamp to get from Start to Finish. Each pull changes the arrow to either Up, Down, Left, or Right. The solution is under a flap on the opposite page.
Find the Pattern (12-13): A series of fruits are displayed in a 4×4 array. The pattern changes but is not difficult to identify. Lift flaps at the bottom allow the reader to guess the pattern and then reveal the answer. Explanations are provided on the inside of the flaps.
Feeling Loopy (14-15): Repeating steps is a useful way to shorten code, and this little section explains how to shorten a list of tasks. A ladybug needs to climb a ladder, but instead of repeating “climb 5 rungs” four times, the reader is asked to find a way to shorten the steps and is given two equally useful solutions under a flap.
Hatch a Plan (16-17): Pull tabs on the right side of the two-page spread help the reader to create a simple flowchart for creating a walk-the-dog program. Start/End, Instruction, and Decision icons are explained and put into play.
Make a Choice (18-19): When two or more options are available, coders will use decision-making code (such as If-Then statements) to make a selection. A 4×5 array of flaps covers a series of icons (turtle, octopus, or school of fish). The reader is supposed to find the shortest path from Start to Finish by following the RULES at the top of the page. Example: If “Turtle,” move forward one space in any direction).
Storing Data: (20-21): Storing information is a key programming concept, so this spread uses a rocket with a rotating wheel to allow the reader to track their score as they find aliens, rockets, and astronauts on the page. As they find each item, they add a certain number of points to their score (aliens +1, rocket +2, astronaut +3). The challenge is upped by asking the reader to time their hunt.
Glossary (22-23): Twenty-four different terms are defined here that include debugging, loop, sequence, variable, and many more. All are used in the book in various locations and having a young reader consult the glossary rather than tell them what a term means is a great way to teach them to hunt for the answers and/or use a glossary or index to find the answers for themselves.
I sat down with my 7-year-old who hasn’t yet taken my programming camp. We walked through the various activities and he enjoyed some more than others, but all in all, he understood what we read together. I think this book would be useful to any parent or young child who has heard the terms programming or coding and wants to learn more. Because this book doesn’t require a computer or software, it’s a great way to ease a young child into coding.
And once your child is ready to start? Well, take a look at the next book…
Star Wars Coding Projects (DK, out on October 3, 2017)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read my previous coding posts on GeekDad.com that I’m a BIG supporter of Scratch. Developed by MIT, this drag-and-drop coding tool is colorful, easy-to-use, and is incredibly powerful. (If you don’t believe me, visit scratch.mit.edu and view the library of games that have been created by kids and adults–do a search for one of your favorite classic ’80s video games such as Asteroids or Space Invaders and you’ll find perfect replicas. Look at the code and tell me that Scratch isn’t capable of creating just about anything a kid might want to code up!)
Scratch is already engaging and attractive to students, so what else could be done to make it even MORE powerful? Two words:
Yep, the folks at DK are releasing the new Star Wars Coding Projects that combines the characters, ships, and locales from our favorite Star Wars movies (including elements from the newest, The Force Awakens) with the Scratch programming tool to offer up Jedi-level training to create six unique games that will teach a wide mix of coding skills.
NOTE: The Star Wars images in the book are copyrighted and not available for download. Readers are given the instructions to make their own icons and backgrounds and encouraged to be creative. If your student wishes to have actual Star Wars images, you should be able to find suitable imagery on images.google.com that can be imported.
This 96-page book is in full-color, and the cute 8-bit graphics of all your favorite characters and ships are just icing on the cake. Here’s the Table of Contents and the general idea of each section.
Computer Coding: A brief two-page explanation of coding, computer languages, the concepts of an algorithm, and an example of how R2-D2 had to modify the trash compactor programming so Luke and company didn’t get crushed. The original program is provided along with R2’s modification. Fun to read!
What is Scratch: Before a reader can jump in, he or she will need to understand the concept of blocks and stage and sprites and scripts, but it’s fast and easy and small examples of Scratch are included here such as showing how you might make a battle droid walk or say “Roger, Roger.”
Exploring Scratch: The full screen is discussed here, showing where everything is located and offering up detailed explanations for the various tabs and blocks and buttons.
Using Images in Scratch: Scratch comes with a ton of pre-created images and backgrounds, but this section offers up a solid tutorial on creating your own images and backgrounds. Kylo Ren offers to be your teacher in this section, but don’t be swayed to the Dark Side.
Using Sound in Scratch: Graphics are great, but without sound, a game just won’t be as fun. R2, Chewie, and BB-8 are here to show you how easy it is to record your own sounds or import them in.
Cargo Bay Chase: The first game will have you providing the code to move an icon around the screen to avoid an evil robot and collect energy balls. Movement using a mouse pointer is covered, as is the basic concepts of using sprites. You’ll learn about using degrees for direction and how to detect when two objects are touching (called a collision). Variables and scorekeeping are introduced. There’s a lot to learn with this game, and the projects offer up suggestions for upgrading the game to make it more challenging.
Build-a-Droid: This project is really fun… Just drag a bunch of images on the screen to assemble your own custom droid. Legs, arms, heads, and more can all be placed together, and you’ll learn how to use the computer’s webcam to take photos and pull them into the editor so you can take photos of yourself or random components to use in the Build-a-Droid app. This project focuses on the editor to create custom images and then moves into the coding required to drag-and-drop parts.
Jetpack Adventure: This side-scrolling game has the bounty hunter Boba Fett avoiding obstacles to collect fuel for his jetpack. The fuel depletes fast, and the timer never stops running until you run out of fuel or hit a barrier. Adding custom obstacles and a nice background are all covered, and you’ll use previous projects’ skills plus new ones such as comparing operators and time tracking.
Use the Force: Okay, this one is going to blow your mind. Your webcam is going to give you Jedi powers! Just move your hands to manipulate objects on the screen such as a Jedi training pod. (If you don’t have a webcam, the code is provided for using the mouse.) You’ll add scorekeeping to manipulate certain items while avoiding others. Move the pod to collect blue gems while avoiding the red ones, all while the timer is counting down.
Secret Spy Mission: Move BB-8 through a maze of storm troopers to collect data cards. Instead of the mouse, coding will be added for using the keyboard. The maze can be customized using the paint editor tool, and then add in the code to give the soldiers some smarts so the game is more challenging.
Asteroid Dash: Control the Millennium Falcon and fly through an asteroid field while avoiding Tie Fighters. Your distance (in parsecs) is tracked as the score. Enemies will shoot at you, but the Hyperdrive is being fixed and can’t jump you away from danger momentarily–it takes 20 seconds to recharge, though, so you can’t avoid the asteroids or enemies forever.
Glossary: As with most DK books, the glossary is there to provide definitions for terms in the book that might be new to the reader.
For my Beginning Game Programming camps, I’ve mostly been using DK’s various workbooks (see links below), and I will continue to use them because they are short and not intimidating at all. But this new Star Wars Coding Projects book is going to be a great resource for the kids. For my camps, I typically have them work through the books and create the games for the first few days… then they have to start creating their own games. This book will provide them more advanced “training” and inspiration. But I’m also planning on handing it to my boys and having them work through the various games. The Star Wars theme will hold their attention and the games inside will increase their skills. It’s a win for my boys and a win for the campers.
Here are links to some of my previous posts on coding resources for kids: