Fun stuff for my budding computer nerd
April 27, 2018 10:08 AM   Subscribe

My kid is obsessed with computers, robots, and coding. I'm going to put the difficulty level in the lede because that's really the primary reason I'm coming to Ask rather than Google: He is five and not, like, supergifted or anything. I'm having a hard time finding stuff (books, Android apps, websites, videos) for him that hits a certain sweet spot.

Kid is in Kindergarten, reads at about a 1st grade level, and is not a big reading-for-fun reader yet, but he is somewhat precocious in his understanding of computing. (I'm a technical trainer by profession so... oops?) He does not need to be convinced that computers are cool because they are like this thing or that thing or because you can combine them with this or that other activity. He's already all-in on computers being awesome all by themselves.

He already has *stuff* out the wazoo. Little Bits, Wonder Workshop robots (which he programs with Blockly), Scratch on my laptop, and a Makey-Makey. What I'm looking for are books or videos or activities that will help him figure out what to do with all that stuff, as independently as possible. Right now, the books I usually find that are at his conceptual knowledge level are mostly written at a grade level that's way too advanced (meaning, I have to read it to him, define a bunch of non-technical words, help him chunk the information and impose a good bit of scaffolding).

On the other side are things that are more at his age-level but are just too basic and thus uninteresting, or too focused on making computers appeal to kids who aren't already inclined that way by making computing concepts into art projects (he hates cutting and pasting and coloring--his fine motor skills are somewhat delayed and that's all very frustrating and unfun for him).

W/r/t to the YouTubez, a lot of the videos that contain information that would be new and interesting for him are targeted more towards 10-12 year-olds and thus mainly feature an adult talking to camera, whereas my son is still wanting cartoons for all his media. (He once watched a 40 minute playlist about linguistics because it was presented in cartoon form.)

The absolute hands-down biggest hit so far has been the Usborne Lift-the-Flap Book of Computers and Coding. We've read it all the way through at least 6 times in the past 2 weeks. It hits that spot where the lift-the-flap aspect and the cartoony illustrations appeal to the 5-year-old in him, but the information isn't dumbed down (we learned to count in binary! we learned how to make a flow chart!).

I recently got the Hello Ruby books out of the library and we read the stories last night. He liked the stories, but I can already tell looking at the activities that these are not going to be a hit. Too much cutty-pastey-arty-farty not enough actually making computers do things. Like, I was kind of irked at how in the story they meet a bunch of Logic Gates but then don't actually define what a logic gate is or why computers have them or how they work.

So, sorry, that was long. Anyone have something for my little software engineer? (Plz no Minecraft, I am still attempting to keep its existence a secret.)
posted by soren_lorensen to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Would boardgames fit your activities idea, or would they fall in the stuff category? Coding boardgames for kids seem like a *thing* right now.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 10:16 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have you seen Hopscotch? It takes them through coding to make simple games, using a cartoon format.
posted by xo at 10:22 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Girl Scouts have added a ton of new robotics and engineering badges over the past year. You can find the requirements online. Daisy scouts are K-1st and Brownies are 2nd-3rd, so you should be able to find a lot of material specifically targeted and appropriate to young age group kids.
posted by phunniemee at 10:47 AM on April 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is the Nintendo Labo stuff an option?
posted by rhizome at 10:51 AM on April 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

More on the electrical engineering side than computers specifically: my kid got a bunch of snap circuits from a garage sale. He loves the one where you send the fan flying up in the air. There’s also a beeper thing.

You still will want to have adult supervision to make sure he doesn’t short anything out.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:14 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Any chance he might like logo? You can do a lot with just a few commands, and then build on that as desired.

Also I don't know if this is too simple but you mentioned cartoons and scratch, which made me think of this.

One game you can play together is the robot game, where one person is a robot and the other gives instructions. Only the robot doesn't know how to follow most instructions except for the most basic movements, until you teach it. So for example you can't tell it at first to walk 5 steps forward, because it doesn't know how to walk a step. You have to tell it to lift the knee of leg a, lean forward x degrees, place foot a on the ground some amount forward of foot be, transfer weight to foot a, etc, etc. Once the correct series of steps is worked out, you can tell the robot to remember that that series of steps is called "walk one step", and you can use that as a new basic instruction.

Whenever the person instructing the robot gives an instruction that the robot doesn't know yet, the robot has to beep loudly (or perform some other error code).
posted by trig at 11:19 AM on April 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Y'all are picking up what I'm putting down. Just for additional data:

*Board and card games: YES!!! He loves games and is also a bit of a budding game-designer (Category: Utterly Nonsensical). Specific recommendations along these lines would be very appreciated!
*We don't have any iDevices, so iOS-only apps aren't possible.
*I would love to justify the purchase of a Nintendo Switch soooo... yes on Labo, but in the future.
*We already have a Snap Circuits set that has been kind of collecting dust. It's not really computery enough to scratch his current itch.
*He already has the PBS Kids Scratch Jr. app and he does use it but his complete non-grokking of storytelling or pretend play (yeah, he's an odd duck) means that a lot of what Scratch Jr. is suited for (telling little stories with your Sprites etc...) is not interesting to him.
*Girl Scouts/Google Made w/ Code look like lots of perfect stuff. Definitely going to bookmark this on his browser.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:55 AM on April 27, 2018

Seconding Logo. Low floor, wide walls — I used the Apple II version when I was maybe 6 or 7, since it was able to execute simple statements line by line, and then grow into understanding more complex control structures, methods, etc by 9 or 10. Believe it or not, the algorithm for Bézier curve drawing was passed down as oral tradition in the elementary school I was at (though I didn’t make the connection between the logo version and the general concept until grad school ha).
posted by Alterscape at 12:42 PM on April 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

How about getting him a micro:bit and using block programming? He'd need support but I imagine the physical aspect - making LEDs light, pressing buttons, using the other sensors etc could be interesting. Plenty of online tutorials so he/you could copy existing programs, discuss then modify/extend.
posted by chr at 12:54 PM on April 27, 2018

Robot Odyssey.

By modern computer game standards, it's primitive. But you play a small person trapped in ... I forget what, but let's call it a maze, where the way out is solved with the aid of robots who can operate in spaces that the player-character cannot. So you need to build circuits into the robots (who have a basic set of sensors, thrusters, and an antenna) using logic gates. I remember being obsessed with this when I was 12ish, but that's when I first found it; I could've played it younger. There's a small bit of learning required on how logic gates work, but they are somewhat taught in the game and very easy to experiment with.

I recall having frustration with some of the problems, but I also recall a whole lot of excitement at getting home to get on the Laser (an Apple II clone at my friend's house, where we played it) to try some new solutions I'd thought up.

If he sticks with coding, he'll encounter logic gates in that. If he takes another direction, he'll encounter them elsewhere, such as when symbolic logic in a philosophy class I took once. It's useful to develop the skill of making complex nested NOT/AND/OR/XOR arguments for any kind of information processing.

You can read more about the game in this Slate article, but don't let the headline put you off. The game is very difficult to beat, but far from difficult to play.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:10 PM on April 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another problem-solving-driven programming thing is Karel the Robot. Karel is an intro-to-programming variant of Pascal, a language nobody uses any longer, but which shares a lot of qualities with languages that're still going strong. Using Karel the language, you give Karel the Robot (a dot on a grid) instructions on how to navigate through obstacles on the grid, including how to decide what to do if encountering an obstacle. The instructions are human-readable ("turnLeft") while still requiring programming syntax (gotta learn sometime) and such.

5 is probably too young for this, but keep it in the queue.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:16 PM on April 27, 2018
posted by cross_impact at 1:43 PM on April 27, 2018

Maybe he'd like a kit to build his own computer and learn coding, like this?
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:49 PM on April 27, 2018

My (now 7 year old) has a scholastic book he bought at a book fair called "Coding games in Scratch" or something like that. It walks you through creating (simple) scratch games. Logo is hard for 5 year olds, unless they can type. My kid started on Python (from a kids book on Python, I don't have the name), which has a Logo emulator (`import turtle`), but he's slowed down by terrible typing skills. Scratch (which is more fun than Scratch Junior for a reader) doesn't have this dependency on typing or getting the indents just right.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 3:39 PM on April 27, 2018

Some of these are toys, some are media:

I had a toy kind of like this "Turing Tumble" mechanical computer when I was little and I was OBSESSED with it. I also had this binary number game and LOOOOOOVED it.

There are snap circuits kits that build specific robots and RC cars and things (rather than a large variety of projects like the standard kits), if you haven't seen those.

My kids have one of these Thames & Kosmos engineer kits (that's the robot one) and like it a lot -- it teaches engineering concepts with a building system that's similar to tinker toys or legos. He'd learn some basics of how the mechanical bits of robots work. (A bit similar -- Lego chain reactions.)

My computer-and-coding-oriented kid really likes Kiwi Crates, which are more generally STEAM focused, but the often include some basic programming concepts and even I've learned quite a bit about simple machines and technology basics from them. HOWEVER they may be a bit old for him, they do have arty bits (often optional), and some of the projects require parental help. But maybe something to keep in mind for the future.

Do you watch Odd Squad on PBS Kids? They have a LOT of basic programming concepts in the shows (as well as just a lot of math and problem solving generally) and some of them my kids turn into games, like an episode where they were programming a robot my kids turned into a sidewalk chalk game where one of them was the robot and the other was the programmer drawing arrows and things. They have an app (or two?) and a bunch of activities on the website that may be interesting.

Games like "lemmings" are sort-of secretly programming games (there are a bunch these days!) where you set up your roadblocks and directions and whatnot and try to get all the dudes to go where they're supposed to. If you haven't seen Dragon Box (which is an algebra game), you might look at that -- it's cartoony, super-fun, and the algebra is stealth -- first you're matching monsters to eat other monsters, and then later you're trying to isolate a crate from a bunch of monsters by making appropriate monsters eat each other -- it's clever!

What about DK My First Coding Book?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:22 PM on April 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Would he like a beginning arduino kit? You can find projects that are a combination of coding and hardware.

Sparkfun has similar tutorials and gadgets.
posted by bendy at 8:36 PM on April 27, 2018

I really recommend looking into the First Robotics series. In the next year (age 6), he'll be eligible to participate in the First Lego League Jr. activities. You can look for teams local to you here.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:34 PM on April 27, 2018

My five-year-old loves these mini-games on ABCya, and one of them, Robot Islands, is essentially teaching basic programming concepts - putting together a set of simple instructions in order to get a robot from A to B. It’s not unique but it is free and fun. I know that there’s a website and an iOS app, but I’m not sure about Android.
posted by eirias at 6:17 AM on April 28, 2018

I had The Brain back when it was new in the early 80s, and while it's not much of a puzzle, many years later I realized that it had taught me how to count in binary. If your kid has someone around them who will tell them "now you know how to count in binary" after they finish it, they will know they can rely on that knowledge when it comes up in their future computering.
posted by rhizome at 10:56 AM on April 28, 2018

Usborne Books and More also has a book called Coder Academy (the whole Academy series is fabulous) which is an activity book with a lot of different kinds of ways to learn about coding. Full disclosure, I am an old mefite but a new UBAM consultant and I sell these books.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:09 PM on April 28, 2018

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