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Hello World! 199

stoolpigeon writes "Hitting middle age has been an interesting time. I catch myself thinking about how well kids have it today and sounding a lot like my father. One difference is while my dad was happy to teach me about sports or cars, we never spent any time knocking out code together. I think he did realize that home computers were important and I will always be grateful for the Commodore Vic-20 he brought home one day. It was a substantial purchase for our household. I spent many days copying lines of basic from magazines and saving the results to cassette tapes. In my home today we have a considerably better situation, computing wise. There are usually a couple laptops running as well as the desktop machine upstairs. My kids take for granted what I found to be amazing and new. Still, that's all pretty normal and I'd like to give them an opportunity to go deeper if they are so inclined, just like we give them opportunities to explore other skills and pursuits. With that in mind I brought a copy of Hello World! home a few weeks ago, and the response from my oldest has been surprisingly enthusiastic." Keep reading for the rest of JR's review.
Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners
author Warren and Carter Sande
pages 430
publisher Manning
rating 9/10
reviewer JR Peck
ISBN 978-1933988498
summary Computer programming for kids and other beginners.
Warren Sande wanted to teach his son Carter about programming but had difficulty finding what he thought was a suitable book to guide the process. At the encouragement of Warren's wife, he and Carter decided to write their own while Carter learned to code. Warren chose Python as the language they would work in and then the two together outlined the book and created the sample applications. As the book moves into more complex territory the sample applications are the kind kids like best. They are games. As soon as my daughter saw that she would get to make her own computer games she immediately asked me if we could start working through the book together. When it has been a while since we've had a chance to crack it open, she reminds me by asking when we will get back to it. I would say that on her end it has been a complete success. It has been a great time for us as father and daughter and educational for us both.

Language choice can be quite a hot topic amongst us geeks. In the preface Warren defends his choice of Python with a bullet list I'll summarize here.
  • Python was created from the start to be easy to learn.
  • Python is free.
  • Python is open source software.
  • Python is not just a 'toy' language.
  • Python is multi-platform.
  • Warren likes Python and thinks others will like it too.

I think the list is pretty solid. The only one I think may not be directly applicable to the case it hand is the FOSS angle. Warren explains that being open means that more can be done with the software and that there is a large set of corresponding code out there freely available. A case could be made that this is also true of more closed languages. The one thing I think that could make this important is if the teacher of the material is interested in not just teaching the technical side of programming but is also interested in communicating the philosophical values of freedom. In light of the amount of closed source software and ignorance in regards to FOSS options I've seen in the public school system where I live, I think this may be more important than some think.

The rest of the reasons though I think make Python an incredibly solid choice, and above all else is the simplicity. My daughter has been able to have fun typing code into IDLE without having to get hung up with a complicated environment. The syntax is clean and simple, there is no compiling, it's very easy to just jump in and start making things happen. I think this is important, the younger the student. I was concerned that nine might be just a touch too young for this undertaking. The book itself does not make any recommendations concerning age. The more I've thought about it, the more I agree with that choice. Children vary so greatly and any number chosen would be rather arbitrary. My nine your old has done well so far, but she is already quite a book worm and leans towards more academic pursuits. An older child may struggle and there may be some that are even younger that would be fine with the material in Hello World! So rather than focus on age I think a parent needs to come at this from a perspective of ability, proclivity and experience.

In the ability area, a child is going to know how to read, work with a mouse, and type things via the keyboard. Of course the mouse is optional strictly speaking but most will probably want to use it. Some math skill would be good as well as the ability to understand the use of variables. The book tackles the necessary material in a kid friendly way but it is not dumbed down. In fact the learning potential here is huge, as one may imagine. The book is formatted with lots of visuals and fly-outs that give information on how computers operate and how programming languages deal with information processing. My daughter and I have already had interesting discussions on subjects like integers and floats. An example that draws a sine wave lead to a great teachable moment about amplitude and wave length. Then there is the constant need for approaching problem solving in a structured manner using logic. I think that taking on programming brings a wide number of benefits.

One of the features, is a little caricature of Carter that is placed throughout the book with observations that the real Carter made as he learned with his dad. These are things that a real kid noticed, and so they are likely to stand out to a child working through this book. For instance in the chapter on "Print Formatting and Strings" Carter says, "I thought the % sign was used for the modulus operator!" The book explains that Python uses context to choose how the % sign is used. There are other little cartoon characters that appear throughout the book drawing attention to important points that need to be remembered. Learning is reinforced through quizzes at the end of the chapters. The chapters are not too long but I've found that my daughter and I have to break them into sections because of her typing speed. I've been tempted at times to move things along by typing for her but I know that she will not get the same benefit from the exercise if we do it that way. I will also let errors slide by at times to allow her the opportunity to look at error messages and find the problems.

As I mentioned the book is billed as being for kids and "other beginners." I'm going to say that the primary focus is rightly on kids, and probably kids who are in grade school or maybe junior high. This is not to say that the examples and information wouldn't be great for anyone brand new to programming. There are even some nuggets for someone who has written some code but is new to Python. I am going to guess though that the average high school student will not be as taken with the cartoons and puns. I'd have loved to have written my own lunar lander game at that age though, so maybe I'm selling this short, or maybe it would be something a teen would be happy to work on away from the eyes of others, so as not to appear childish. (I may take heat for this but even as a teenage geek I was immensely worried about the perceptions of my peer group.) I think an adult that was serious about learning to program, even if they had no prior experience, would do better with heavier material. All that said, I think for children they've really hit the sweet spot and as much as marketers would like it to be so, no book can be everything to everyone.

Things start simple with print statements and loops that took me back to good old days of watching messages scroll endlessly by on display computers at Sears when I was a kid. The move towards games starts even then with text and quickly moves on to leveraging Pygame for games that utilize graphics. I think this is important as it keeps things entertaining while teaching important concepts at the same time. I have to say it is quite a bit fun to sit with my child discussing nested loops and decision trees. By the end of the book examples will have included a simple virtual pet, a downhill skiing game and a lunar lander simulation.

I've discussed a child's ability a bit but I think the last two things I mentioned must be taken into account as well. They are proclivity and experience. I've let my daughter drive the time we spend working on this. Just like the parents who project their sports dreams on their kids, I think there is a possibility to do the same with my love for all things digital. It may even be easier to do so as I view the ability to do some amount of programming to be an important life skill. The thing is I don't want to push her too hard and have her back away from it completely. This fits in with the experience part. We take it as it goes, and if things stop being fun, we will back off. I don't do this with her core disciplines from school like reading and math, but for something that is extra right now I'm not going to push. It would transition from being a joy to being work. That brings up a last and unexpected benefit from Hello World! I'm rediscovering a lot of the fun and excitement that drew me into this industry in the first place.

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Hello World!

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  • Thank you! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scubamage ( 727538 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:18PM (#28680141)
    Thanks for the review, you just gave me an idea for what I'm going to be getting my nephews for their respective birthdays. Awesome! :)
  • I wish... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by plasmidmap ( 1435389 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:25PM (#28680295)

    That something like this had been around when I was a kid!

  • by cephus ( 1471105 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:29PM (#28680361)

    You went out of your way to praise your Dad for having the foresight to move beyond his comfort zone by bringing home a computer. Isn't computing simply your version of "sports and cars"? Shouldn't you be trying to emulate your father by moving beyond your comfort zone and bringing home something that will inspire your kids to pursue their own interests rather than yours?

  • by starglider29a ( 719559 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:40PM (#28680523)

    Here's a question: If we teach our kids to program, do we start them on:

    10 N=N+1
    20 PRINT N
    GOTO 10

    or OnClick="doHelloWorld"

    After learning to program on a TRS-80 and later GWBASIC but now doing ASP.NET, I find myself looking at code (ExecuteSacalar()) as if every step takes 1/100th of a second, thus slowing performance. When in actuality, it takes a microsecond. Are we better off teaching them how to write an algorithm (How much is 1 + 2 + 3 + ... + N?) or to start with finding what they need in a library? I've seen advantages and disadvantages to both my career.

    Much of what I do now is finding the best canned operation (GridView) and toying with styles, rather than rolling my own Repeater. Seldom, but not never, does knowing how to step through a string get used. Although rolling my own DDL's is faster than letting .NET do it.

    Should we teach our kids how to ride a motorcycle where pedaling isn't needed? Or do they need to learn to pedal before they ride a motorcycle?

  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:48PM (#28680641) Journal

    Get em a RepRap. Teach em to do 3D modeling, back off and let em make their own toys. That's what I'm doing... my kid has already developed a bunch of toys and the circuit boards for our RepRap are in the mail.

    As for teaching kids programming, I'd suggest starting with Scratch from MIT. My daughter loves it.

  • Re:Thank you! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by symes ( 835608 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:54PM (#28680693) Journal
    At the risk of being modded a troll... I completely agree. I've been looking for something like this for my daughter for some time. She's nine, just got her first laptop (and old one, but decent enough) and is really taking an interest. I know that writing a simple game would give her a real buzz. Next stop Amazon.
  • Re:Thank you! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @02:57PM (#28680729) Homepage Journal

    I catch myself thinking about how well kids have it today

    It's like that with every generation. My dad rode a mule to school, I had a school bus. Today's kids (some of them anyway) have air conditioning in the classrooms.

    But in a lot of ways the kids have it harder. For instance, there was no such thing as crack when I was a kid, and meth was only manufactured in drug company factories. If I needed a ride I could find a pay phione, today if you lose your cell you can't make a call.

    My kids take for granted what I found to be amazing and new

    I took running water for granted; well, mostly, because when I was small my grandparents still didn't have running water.

    However, I'm not looking forward to being as old as my parents are now. My dad says "I lived 78 years without a computer and cell phone and I don't need it now", while my maternal grandfather said the same thing about indoor plumbing. Even afetr my uncle put a bathroom in his house, he still used the outhouse! I visited my Mom Saturday, and she was saying the same thing about cell phones. She has one, but she never uses it (it's maddening, these days you expect to actually be able to communicate with people).

    When I was a kid, only rich, giant corporations had computers [] and about the the only interaction a normal person had with one was that your electric bill came on a Hollerith card.

    BTW and OT, but who gave mod points to a troll? The parent comment should have been left neutral, or at worst, modded "overrated". The book would indeed make a good gift.

  • by fprintf ( 82740 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:01PM (#28680775) Journal

    The expectations of today's 9 - 14 year old is very different than for those of us learning BASIC on a Commodore or Atari in the early 80s. I tried Scratch and Kidsprogramminglanguage with my now-13 year old. As soon as he saw the creations we could make he said "at what point do I get to make a game like on Xbox or my computer?" He just wasn't satisfied making lines on the screen or adding numbers or helping to solve his math homework (when it would be easier to solve it in his head). So, yes it would be cool to make lunar lander and I would have also been soooo happy to have such a game in 1983.

    Then again, his favorite games now are often on Kongregate - sometimes the simpler the better, like launching a stick figure out of a cannon and solving various puzzles of angle, thrust, bounce etc. So maybe it is possible, but it needs to be graphic, challenging and most of all fun.

  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:04PM (#28680825)
    It depends, to finish up your analogy, should we give the kids a tricycle when they already have a motorized Segway, or give them a motorcycle. Showing a kid "Hello World" doesn't provoke the same interest it did back in the '80s. Really, back then we had (for the time) state of the art games that you could fully modify with a week or two of learning. Even "advanced" games like Super Mario Bros. for the NES is looked at as something a beginner should be able to do. So unless the kid can make a game equivalent to SMB, they aren't going to be too interested.
  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:08PM (#28680869) Journal
    Scratch is great in that it teaches how to "think" like a programmer. However, ends up not really doing you a lot of good in the long run. Python is an easy to use language but it also is very "real" in that knowing Python can get you somewhere. That said, Scratch is very easy to use and you can make decent applications in there, but in the end you have effectively a "toy" language which won't really help you in the long run.

    You need to get them hungry to create first. Once they hit those limitations, that's when you raise the bar. You can do pretty sophisticated event driven programming in Scratch, and you can reverse engineer other kid's creations from within the IDE. I know there are a lot of kids who moved on to ActionScript from Scratch.
  • by FreakyGreenLeaky ( 1536953 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:32PM (#28681229)
    So you had things like line validators (checksum as you entered each line)

    Wow, now that brings back memories. I remember typing many, many lines of numbers (with the checksum at the end) and then finally having a stick-figure or something dodge falling balls...

    Of course, the real fun began when I finally learned what those numbers meant :)
  • HTML/CSS/JavaScript (Score:3, Interesting)

    by XxtraLarGe ( 551297 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:32PM (#28681241) Journal
    It seems to me if I had a child and wanted to teach them programming, I'd do it using these three techs in this order. You don't need any special software to write any of them, they are easy to learn, and there are millions of free examples available to you. The best thing is, no compiling, no need for a server. You can write a bit of code, open it with your browser and get instant gratification.
  • by AdamWeeden ( 678591 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:37PM (#28681307) Homepage
    If that is the case, I would HIGHLY recommend you get him started on Kongregate Labs' Shootorial []. It is essentially a tutorial on how to make a side scrolling shooter in Flash from the ground up. It starts out basic but introduces concepts like logic and hit boundaries and other things that actually require code. Hope he enjoys it!
  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:56PM (#28681619) Journal

    That's why you give them something that makes the coding easy as in not monotonous but not easy as in done for you. Then they have fun creating and learn to enjoy creating. When they have an idea that they can't implement, THAT is when you introduce the syntax.

    Not talking out of my ass here... I tried a bunch of different things, including LOGO and Squeak. Scratch was the best received. Eventually, Scratch will naturally lead to Smalltalk.

  • by ratboot ( 721595 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @04:23PM (#28682011)
    Python was created from the start to be easy to learn But I think BASIC on VIC-20 was even easier to learn then Python : no need to use colons or indenting! And what about the dreaded ==, impossible to understant for a kid! Mod me troll.
  • by jbolden ( 176878 ) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:44PM (#28685713) Homepage

    If any parents are reading this, just wanted to mention I've (+other's help) written an article on wikipedia covering the educational programming language domain: []

The absent ones are always at fault.