Teaching Kids to Code

Before my family had a computer, I knew I wanted to program. I told that story in an earlier post. I’d like my kids to learn to code as well–but they’re growing up in a world very different from that of my childhood, and I haven’t been sure how to recreate for them the empowerment that I felt. I think I’ve found one “magic bullet” entree to the game, and am sharing a brief review of it and of several other resources.


First–our first BitsBox arrived yesterday, and our kids (7 and 6) love it! The company delivers a highly-scaffolded programming environment. The first project has the child type in two lines of code to draw a monster on screen, and then have him burst into flame on a tap. And then, there’s a question: can you make the monster dance instead of burning? And the learning begins.

What I’ve loved about our kids’ interaction with BitsBox so far is they’re exploring. One didn’t like the music that came with the first assignment, so I helped her figure out how to play something else instead (choose a different name from the library and use the song function). Another wanted the monster in another assignment to say something besides “peekaboo”. She tried sound(“hi, you”), but there wasn’t a sound by that name. But, text(“hi, you”) worked to display a message!

Most learning comes from wanting to accomplish something, and then figuring out how to do it. I’m ecstatic that BitsBox seems to be facilitating this kind of learning in our kids!

I hope that BitsBox adds layers of complexity as it progresses, but for the moment, it’s lovely. It even allows kid coders to share their apps with other people, via email or QR code scan. It’s a monthly subscription, our kids are excited about it, and therefore I’m excited about it, for now. I don’t have an affiliate arrangement with them, so no kickbacks are involved in this review. ūüôā

Note that both of our kids are proficient readers, and comfortable with the idea of keyboards (though still slow, hunt-and-peck typists). Those are likely prerequisites to enjoying BitsBox, as is the occasional (though not extensive) involvement of an adult “coach”.

Robot Turtles

We got the Robot Turtles board game a while ago. The basic idea is similar to the old “Logo” programming approach: you create a set of instructions for a turtle to follow on its way to the prize. Except, in this case, there’s an adult, the “Turtle Mover”, involved, who “executes” the instructions (potentially including loops and maybe other constructs), making suitable dramatic noises as the turtle turns, moves forward, activates lasers to blast through ice walls, etc.

Our daughters enjoyed this game. I loved the idea. But the “problem space” felt a bit too simplistic, and–I’ll admit it–the role of the Turtle Mover doesn’t get more interesting with time. It still, though, might be worth a try for you. The pieces are lovely, and our daughters enjoyed it.

Lightbot and Lightbot Jr.

This is a great little “puzzle” game for mobile. You give instructions to a robot, which then executes them to turn on all the lights in a “board”. The boards, of course, increase in complexity as you progress, and new options and coding constructs become available.


Scratch and Scratch Jr.

These are free programs to let kids play with programming. Scratch Jr. is completely graphical; Scratch includes some text, with substantial graphical elements. They’re terrific environments for free-form programming. Our kids have played with Scratch Jr., but haven’t tapped much of the potential, and I haven’t been equipped to guide them. I have a book from No Starch Press on the way that I hope will help me with that. (They also have books on Scratch.)

Other resources

Khan Academy has a course in programming that uses JavaScript and graphics extensively. CodeCombat is a paid subscription that includes a lot of scaffolding. CodeWizards HQ appears to have actual online classes for kids in programming. I haven’t tried any of these.

If you search for “teach children programming” or “teach children Python”, you’ll find an abundance of resources.

Your recommendations?

If you have personal experience with other resources for teaching kids to code, I’d love to hear about them in comments!

Hope’s Hard Edges

Photo by Josh Nuttall on Unsplash

Around the year 2000, I stopped listening to most contemporary Christian music. I’d enjoyed some of the upbeat rhythms, some of the sentiments…but I found myself listening to the most recent WOW collection and nauseated at the sugary, substanceless positivity that I heard. It wasn’t good Christian music. It wasn’t good art of any sort. It was a lie.

The story is told that Siddhartha Gautama grew up as a privileged prince, carefully isolated from the outside world to protect him from physical, mental, or emotional harm. But one day a funeral procession went by outside the palace, and he realized that a world of death existed outside. His ensuing grappling with suffering, we’re told, took him a long way from the palace and into reality, and produced the eightfold path of Buddhism.

The story is told in other forms. In Watership Down, the wanderers find a warren where everything is peaceful, there are no predators, and all eat well…but learn that scaffolding this peace was a maze of farmers’ snares, and a code of silence about them. The peace of the warren depended on it. In The Stepford Wives, a couple moves into an idyllic suburb. The charm and competence of their neighbors is delightful, and incredible…and then the cost becomes clear.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in her haunting fable The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, imagines a society of broad freedom, aesthetic delight, and human achievement, and of all those in it. (Search out the story and read it. Really.)

Hope nauseates me. Hope keeps me sane and alive.

Real hope begins with what is true–with the sadness, the horror, the fear, the pain, the injustice that are endemic to the world. And it somehow, often ridiculously, holds on to a belief that things can, that things may, get better. Somehow. Through one’s own actions, through outside factors, perhaps through both.

And there’s the other kind of hope, that is no hope at all. The “hope” of convincing oneself that nothing is wrong, and that no solutions are needed. The hope that tells the musicians in the palace to play more loudly as the funeral procession passes by outside. The hope that proffers weary and worn-through “spiritual” prescriptions to the starving of body or soul. The hope that tells others “be warmed and fed” and prays earnestly for their good, and goes on its way knowing that God is in control and all shall be well. The “hope” that rejects hope, for there is nothing to improve on and nothing to hope for, that constructs an inner idyll as it destroys the world around it.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I see the shadows. I’m immersed in them, surrounded by them, even suffused by them. And yet, I act in hope. In hope that the flickering particle of light in me is real, that it might survive, might strengthen others, and that someday it will, somehow, be meaningful. And that the presence of shadows may indicate a light source–and that that possibility is worth everything. Worth survival, worth pain, worth kindness and integrity.

But don’t tell me that all is justice and peace, for there is no peace. If redemption comes, it will come for reality, not for fantasies. It will come for the hard edges of pain and truth, not for the spun candy of niceness. It will incinerate imagined worlds, leaving only the glowing gold of reality. It will come through people who know reality, and live in it.

I do believe in a metaphysical reality–but in that reality, a transcendent God chose to enter, and to submit to, reality as we know it, and worse than most of us know it. God chose to enter human life as a Jewish man under Roman occupation, to become a political victim both of Rome and of Judea, and to be tortured to death. And in Jesus’ death and resurrection (I realize I’m losing some people here, and perhaps gaining some back) and the inauguration of the Church, God’s metaphysical involvement with the world quickly returned to deep, empowered engagement in a very human and physical world. As one of the New Testament letters noted, “How can you say you love God, whom you can’t see, when you hate your brother, whom you can?”

Hope is real, or we are hopeless. What is real, hurts. Hope has hard edges.

30-minute thoughts: Living spaces

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Having recently moved back to the US, we’re re-engaging with America’s largest irrigated crop: the lawn. As with many issues, I find myself in inner conflict. I like the idea of having a nice, tidy green lawn of soft, cool grass where our daughters can play, without worrying overmuch about ticks and other beasties. But I hate the idea of pumping and pouring precious groundwater into something that’s not meant to grow here, of dumping chemicals on the ground purely for the sake of aesthetics, of being a contributor to the mass death of insects (and the threat that poses to the rest of the biome, including the species homo sapiens), of killing off all plant life except a certain species or two of grass in an area in the pursuit of some cultural ideal.

We’re hoping to pasture a few chickens on the lawn, using the ingenious Egg Cart’n “chicken tractor” as a movable coop–which offers an extra incentive to limit chemicals applied. (Disclosure: my father-in-law designed and sells these things. And they are ingenious.)

We have, perhaps, a quarter-acre plot (with power lines close by), which limits, for example, the ability to plant a forest in our backyard. We’ve dedicated a bit of the space to growing vegetables, using a variant of “Square Foot Gardening” (raised beds). I did end up “nuking” some big, solid patches of dandelions with glyphosate. We hope to experiment with planting some buffalo-grass plugs and over-seeding a drought-tolerant fescue, without chemically burning down most of the many weeds (and some grasses) we have in the lawn right now–for something of a grass-based lawn (if it “takes”) without going to extremes. We’ll till up one area and seed a “bed” with a mix of lots of wildflowers. May they be helpful to some pollinators and other insects. We’d like to plant some more bushes and small trees, ideally ones friendly to birds and maybe other small wildlife.

I recently found High Country Gardens, which looks like an awesome source for sustainable lawns and plants; they have some books I’m very much looking forward to reading. Their “lawn alternative” wildflower mix looks awesome…but a bit of a stretch for our small-ish backyard. Facebook’s “Healthy Yards” page offers helpful reminders in my feed. I’ve looked a bit at the Kansas Forestry Service’s website and trees-list, and a bit (esp. re. grasses) at KS Extension Service resources. But overall, I’m running on a dearth of knowledge, a dearth of energy to explore and learn, and with competing ideals of cultural aesthetic mandates (especially in a small town, vs. completely rural–but some of which are internalized) and of responsibly living on the earth.

I find nature deeply nourishing. I don’t spend a lot of time in nature. I like growing things. I don’t feel like I have huge amounts of time to invest in them. I want to minimize use of chemicals. I do use them somewhat, and prefer not to buy things branded “organic” or “non-GMO”. I dread the depletion of the aquifer under us…and I use a water softener, reverse-osmosis system, and irrigate my lawn. I love the idea of wild, emergent natural spaces, with an ecosystem sorting itself out. I live on a plot in a small town, and think about ticks or leeches (depending on the place) and poison ivy when I’m in woods or grasses. I enjoy, and shudder at, carefully manicured English gardens. I’m deeply refreshed at the oh-so-carefully-shaped wildness of Japanese gardens. I, um, have a few internal paradoxes.

What resources do you recommend for exploring the creation of “living spaces”, with both human living and the sphere of “life” of which we’re a small part in mind?

Quote: “Who Am I Being?”

“One of the different questions adult development theory lets us ask is, ‚ÄúWho am I being right now and is that the person I want to be?‚ÄĚ You bring that question into your everyday life and it moves you.”

-Jennifer Garvey Berger, in Farnam Street/Knowledge Project interview. Great discussion of the self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored, and self-transforming ways of being. In general, a great map of growth in life and decision-making.

Efficiency and resilience

I stood on the sidelines recently of a Facebook debate over online shopping vs. buying locally. The thing is, I sympathize with both sides of the debate–but I think both are incomplete. Two of the biggest considerations are efficiency of a system and resiliency of a system. Other effects, harder to quantify or predict but real nonetheless, matter as well–but let’s stay primarily with efficiency and resilience.

First, let’s consider efficiency. A few questions worth asking include what efficiency means, whether (or in what cases) it’s good, and what tradeoffs it includes.

To be efficient is to accomplish a goal with a minimal investment of resources: time, money, energy, labor, or whatever you consider. Thus, to say a system is “efficient” is always to say that it is efficient¬†in accomplishing [some effect or product],¬†while minimizing the use of [some input], in [a specific environment].¬†¬†Efficient use of one resource often involves the use of other resources or the introduction of other costs. For example, inter-state travel takes less¬†time than it did in the era of the Oregon Trail, but at the cost of natural resources (petroleum fuel), environmental quality (pollution, paved roads), and even social capital within local communities. The system is designed to work “well” in an environment where energy is relatively inexpensive.

(A disclaimer here: a lot of this article blurs the lines between¬†efficiency as described above and¬†efficacy, the simple act of getting things done without reference to the particular costs. I think it’s a fair “blurring” for our purposes, but it is a blurring.)

Efficiency is in itself amoral, but its goals, costs, and benefits are matters of ethics. The Third Reich, of course, was quite efficient in achieving its deadly goals, which we see as evil. Adam Smith and Henry Ford, in valuing specialization, made manufacture of material goods more efficient (and thus more broadly available), with a culture of “artisanship” a casualty, and substantial changes to societal organization. Facebook and Google are increasingly efficient at targeting ads, again re-distributing influence and power. In farming, capital allows ultra-efficient production of crops with respect to human labor–which in turn empties rural communities into cities across the world. Efficiency may be evil, it may be good, but it’s often mixed.

An “efficient” system is generally efficient in a specific environment. Examples abound from various contexts:

  • Darwin’s revelations about finches arose from their varied beaks, each adapted to the particular food sources available to it.
  • Artificial-intelligence systems gain “intelligence” through¬†training. If you train a system to identify butterfly species by showing it many thousands of images of butterflies, it will probably get better and better at making such identifications.
  • Borrowing to invest in real estate, in an era of increasing real-estate prices, is efficient. It makes money, with minimal research required. The same is true for stocks.
  • In the era leading up to the American Civil War, the North became efficient in its use of human labor, substituting capital. The South, with abundant slave labor, was “efficient” in producing a lot of cotton (and money) with little technological capital.
  • For the average 20-year-old, major health insurance is an “inefficient” expenditure–they’ll probably not need it, and if they don’t need it it’s an unnecessary drag on their financial future.

Efficiency usually comes from¬†specialization, a particular emphasis on some areas and de-emphasis of others. When contexts change, though, “efficient” systems often don’t handle the changes well.

  • A finch with a fine beak that’s terrific at drilling into cactus fruits will suffer if the cactus population falls to disease.
  • If your AI butterfly-ID system has been trained on entomological specimens, it might conclude that anything that doesn’t have pin in it with its wings wide open isn’t a butterfly.
  • Leveraged investments in real estate worked well, until they didn’t. You know how 2008 worked out.
  • In the American Civil War, it turned out that manufacturing capacity mattered a whole lot more in a conflict than did cotton production.
  • For the 20-year-old without health insurance, a major health problem can quickly turn “efficiency” into financial disaster.

Higher levels of efficiency often go with higher levels of fragility. We can tune a system to run really, really well (however we define that) in a given environment–but our environment keeps on changing.¬†It’s worth something to reduce the likelihood that a system will crash and burn–in other words, to invest in resilience.

Warren Buffett noted years ago that his first rule of investment is to “never lose money”. He noted as well that any number multiplied by zero is zero–and he has amply demonstrated a willingness to pass over “great investment opportunities” that offer too high a risk of going to zero.

Resilience has value. It even has monetary value, as demonstrated in the insurance, the options, and the futures markets. But the value of resilience goes beyond that–resilience in political systems and social capital has value of its own, even if it’s hard to quantify or monetize. And resilience, over the long term, is essential to maintaining whatever sorts of efficiency a society wants.

Efficiency has value as well, if its goals are good and its trade-offs are understood and reasonable. And a society that’s “efficient” in offering material, spiritual, social, and psychological “goods” will likely be good at achieving resilience as well.

What does this mean for the Amazon-versus-local-shopping debate? You decide. I don’t have comprehensive answers. I do have a few assorted thoughts, though:

  • I love the empowerment and efficiency that Amazon gives me (along with other online stores), and the fact that¬†everything is available.
  • I love the accessibility of local stores, the chances for people to engage the public in their own right rather than as part of a large corporate system, and the chances for multifaceted personal connection as the same people interact in business, in community organizations, schools, and worship communities, as neighbors…and overall, as¬†people rather than as economic units. I’m willing to pay a “tax” to keep this community thriving.
  • Amazon isn’t evil. Amazon is far from an unmitigated good.
  • Local shopping offers much good. It’s far from perfect.
  • We need to keep on engaging this issue on all sides.
    • Local stores can’t stagnate, or they’re complicit in their own deaths. (I went looking for ways to purchase online–or even browse–stuff from Hutchinson-area stores, and came up basically empty. Bluebird Books, with their online presence built on a national platform for independent bookstores, was the shining exception.)
    • On the consumer side, a constant search for the bottom dollar¬†will make it really difficult for local businesses to succeed, with real losses to a community.
    • As utopian as the idea may seem, the online-shopping giants would do well to figure out how to partner with local communities and businesses, rather than just “disrupting” them.

Your thoughts?


Why Kids Should Code

I came across a nice article from Tufts offering a good argument that kids should learn how to code

Coding can be a playground that allows children to become producers, and not merely consumers, of technology
The playground approach to coding moves the conversation beyond the traditional view of coding as a technical skill. Coding is a literacy. As such, it invites new ways of thinking and carries the ability to produce an artifact detached from its creator, with its own meaning.

Don’t read this blog.

If you want to maximize your learning-per-reading-time, you should probably forget about my blog¬†and read Farnam Street.¬†I like learning about cognition, learning, and productivity; Shane Parrish at Farnam Street seems to live a life immersed in such learning, and does a great job of boiling it down for brief presentation.¬†If you¬†must stick around here, though, my WordPress stats will be thrilled–believe me, every page view shows up as a substantial percentage!

Scott H. Young and Cal Newport also will often be worth your time to read.

The use of incoherent fragments

When I started this blog, it was a tentative thing–a platform whose significance I downplayed, but one through which I secretly hoped I’d accomplish something world-changing. I didn’t know what, but after all…who really¬†needs just another “data dump” made public? I wanted to write valuable¬†things, important things, things that earned respect.

Writing content that’s worth reading¬†is a great idea. Unfortunately,¬†this idea has translated into¬†my writing very little. At the same time, I’ve gained appreciation for “simmers” of ideas: experiences like watching a dozen TED talks at a time, reading Alex Steffens’s¬†Worldchanging book, or reading half a dozen books on related topics in a weekend. In this simmer, ideas collide, interact, and combine in wonderful ways. Ideas don’t need to be long; they don’t need to be fully developed to be useful. They just need to interact productively with other ideas. A tornado of index cards might have more value than a well-organized essay–even though the former looks like chaos, and is unlikely to win any literary prizes.

So…I’m going back to the origin of “blogging”. “Blog”, of course, is a contraction of “weblog”–in my interpretation, a stream of brief thoughts released to the Web. It may be that something grand emerges, but I’m not planning on it. What I¬†am planning is that I’ll once again¬†write¬†to help order my understanding of the world. And sometimes, I’ll just share with little¬†comment the¬†small, delightful morsels that I’ve found on my experiential plate.