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By Mark Niemann-Ross | Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tips for getting your kids interested in programming

It’s summer! It’s July! Your son or daughter has been decompressing from school for nearly a month, and now they’re bored, feisty, and looking for something new. Resourceful parents dig deep into their bag of tricks for something—anything—to keep the son/daughter from bugging their brother/sister. I, personally, like to think of this boredom as a window of opportunity to convert non-productive screen time into a learning experience, or, more specifically, a window of opportunity to spark an interest that may lead young minds toward wanting to know more about the skill of programming.

Young boy typing on keyboard with red computer.

Sure, in the big picture, summer is all about getting outside, playing ball at the park, swimming in the pool, and, more or less, finding new and inventive ways of getting into trouble. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating taking up residence on the couch. What I am suggesting is that along with that physical activity, summer is also a great time to stretch minds.

Programming is a real-world tool that provides context for structured problem-solving, math concepts, and improved study habits. That being said, of course no red-blooded kid is going to willingly dive into something as “boring” as programming. Seriously—video games are a much more amusing way to consume screen time than staring at a bunch of cryptic incantations written in some useless programming language. Are you kidding? Learn programming? Learn ANYTHING? I know kids that would rather cut the lawn than get stuck behind a textbook.

If your kid is the “I’d rather mow the lawn” type, here’s a thought—tell your kid they could amuse and amaze their friends by building their own video game. It’s entirely possible that they may end up creating something like Angry Birds or Farmville.

Image of Angry Birds App in Facebook, used as an example of Facebook gamification.

While your son or daughter's first programming initiative may not be as exciting as Angry Birds, practice makes perfect and the creation of basic Facebook games is a great gateway into the world of programming.

Facebook is a great platform to introduce  programmingahem—writing games. Facebook programming can be done with JavaScript—an extremely useful language to know— and Facebook games can be created for free. Plus, Facebook is something “the kid” will already know about. You’ll just need to supply server access (something Ray Villalobos walks you through in Building Facebook Applications with HTML and JavaScript.)

How to get your kids started

Getting your kids started may end up being the hardest part of this initiative. You’ll need to use your parenting super-powers of persuasion to introduce the idea and fire up their enthusiasm. This should be far easier than convincing them to floss their teeth, but there may still be some resistance. Back in my parenting days, I found it easiest to have this sort of conversation over an ice-cream cone.

“Hey,” I would say, using my nonchalant voice. “I was just reading about Facebook games. Have you heard anything about them?”

My kids would respond positively. Possibly launch off into an enthusiastic dissertation about their latest engagement with cows, birds, or jewels.

“I heard it’s not too difficult to create them yourself,” I would say. “If you’re interested, I think I could dig up some instructions and you could build one. What kind of game would you build?”

…and we’re off to the races.

Of course, this means that you—the parent—also need to follow up and help them get un-stuck at times. I recommend sitting down with them to watch the introduction to Ray’s Building Facebook Applications with HTML and JavaScript course together. Maybe start by building your own game with them so that you develop some empathy. I’d also recommend that you let them build a game on their own, as it can be entirely too easy for a parent to take over the project, leaving the kid on the sidelines. There’s great benefit in letting them control their own destiny, and make their own mistakes. Besides, you’ll be amazed at how fast they pick this stuff up and learn things you probably overlooked.

What to expect, and why it’s ok if their first initiative isn’t epic

To be honest, the first game is going to be pretty simplistic and much less sophisticated than what a wild imagination might hope for. Remember to reassure your kids and remind them that it’s just their first game, and it doesn’t mean they won’t ever write the epic game they envision. To assist your son or daughter’s first attempt, you might want to use some of the sample JavaScript source code for games you’ll find by googling “simple javascript games.” If you use one of those programs, be sure to remember to credit the original author.

Once your son or daughter makes it over the hurdle of the first game, you’ll find their desire to learn more about JavaScript will naturally feed itself. To aid you in your next steps, the lynda.com training library has a slew of programming courses, ranging from fundamentals of programming all the way to five hours of in-depth JavaScript training.

Don’t be fooled, though—the training videos in the lynda.com library are only tools to help you encourage your kids to be life-long learners. In the end, you’re the parent with secret ninja skills of persuasion and encouragement. We’re only here to be your trusty sidekick.

If you have kid programming stories, or tips to share with other parents, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave a comment and let us know your story, and keep us updated as you and your son or daughter progress.

Interested in more? • All developer courses on lynda.com • All courses from Ray Villalobos on lynda.com

Suggested courses to watch next:• Building Facebook Applications with HTML and JavaScript• JavaScript Essential Training (2011)Practical and Effective JavaScript • Foundations of Programming: Fundamentals

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