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Christmas is coming up, and I know some of you have experience helping children/nieces/nephews/etc learn programming. Mind sharing?

Are there any kid friendly books, toys, kits, or other such gifts you have experience with and would recommend?

What approaches have you used to generate interest, projects have you done that were fun and rewarding, or any goals to aim for?

Any pitfalls to avoid?

Any success stories to learn from?

Any wisdom on what is appropriate and approachable for different ages?

Input, advice, or recommendations/reviews are much appreciated.

Thanks!

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    As someone who was in the position of the child not so long ago - please don’t do this*. Giving children without any explicit interest to learn about these things gifts trying to initiate some interest will fail for both 90% of the time. Sure, most people here would have loved (or were fortunate enough) to have been given technological gifts when they were children, but that’s easy to say now. If on the other hand you would have been giving something you had absolutely no interest in, or unfortunately no capacity to learn at that age, say a dictionary of ancient greek, an introduction to advanced arctic-geology, the collected works of Hegel or socks, and you know on some level that the person giving you the present is hoping for you to be as happy about it as they think they would have been - well that kind of “pressure” (for the lack of a better word) is not really a nice present, even if it was unintentionally. On the other hand, from the side of the person who gave the gift, unless you enjoy disappointment, you won’t feel much better either.

    *: I’d like to clarify that I’m not trying to universally condem any gifts with the intention to boost a childs interest in some subject - just be sure that he or she has a potential to understand it, and know her or him good enough to be sure that they are the kind of person to be interested in it. Not every present is appropriate for every child. Thinking about it twice will prevent you from becoming the person who is trying to force his interest on children and your present to just disappear in a cupboard indefinitely.

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      +1 to this, as the parent of a 6-year-old.

      We have Robot Turtles (as mentioned in another thread) and we’ve played it quite a few times, and she simply doesn’t find it compelling. This is not intended as a knock on the game, I’m sure it’s great for a lot of kids, but different kids like different things. I bought the card game SET, and she gets it and will grudgingly play it with me but insists that it’s boring and that she’d rather do something else. I bought her “No Stress Chess” and she learned how the game works and how the pieces move but decided she would rather act out little dramas with the king and queen and such.

      I’ll keep trying more things, but you can’t force kids into any of this stuff. (Or at least you shouldn’t, is my belief.)

      I would love it if she wanted to learn coding, but this year for Christmas she really wants a Barbie that turns into a mermaid and also into a fairy, so that’s what she’s getting. Maybe next year.

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        Edit: Previous comment didn’t really move the discussion forward, so here’s a new one.

        Can you make your comment more constructive? Answers to some of the following would really help.

        • Was there a certain approach, attitude, or expectation that put you off?
        • How was “gift to try and initiate interest” conveyed? If it had been conveyed differently, like “toy that might resonate with deeper interest”, would you have had a better experience? What would each of these approaches look like to you?
        • Is there a certain kind of gift/kit/etc that was too complicated/specialized/specifically about learning?
        • Was there an interest of yours that had been mistaken for an interest in programming?
        • Were there redeeming parts of your experience that could be illustrative for a better approach?
        • Any specific input on what “he or she has a potential to understand it” means as it relates to your experience, or that would surprise a casual observer?

        Surely there are ways to go about giving gifts that involve learning (not necessarily as a primary focus) that isn’t “pressure”.

        I feel like you have an interesting perspective to share, but it’s all hidden behind a dismissive post. Even if your experience was an unmitigated disaster, there is something you could offer beyond “don’t even think about doing this”.

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          Was there a certain approach, attitude, or expectation that put you off?

          Not really “put me off “ - but I’d say that there was often an expectation that I already understood more than I did. In my case it was a electronics kit, but I didn’t know (and nobody told me (or at least I didn’t understand if if anyone did)) that electricity needs to flow in a circuit - and why should it? There’s only one wire from the plug hole to a lamp, why would this be any different?

          How was “gift to try and initiate interest” conveyed?

          To give an opposite example from my previous one - my grandfather, who was a professor of physics, once bought me some game (I can’t remember what it actually was, I was 5 y/o) that had to do with motors, moment and mechanics, etc. And he wanted to explain it all to me, but - not that I didn’t like it per se - but I just wasn’t interested in the physical stuff. There were little cut-out mammoths I found great delight with, and I remember my grandfather being disappointed to put it mildly that I didn’t want to play with the actual things…

          If it had been conveyed differently, like “toy that might resonate with deeper interest”, would you have had a better experience?

          … so it’s not really a problem of intention, or that’s at least not what I meant (I’m sorry if I was misunderstood). The issue just was that back then, I had e.g more interest in ancient animals than the laws of mechanics. So maybe it would have been different if I had an interest in physics, but for that I would have had to have had a basic understanding of the subject - without that - if all these things stay “mystical”, “magical” ideas beyond comprehension - I believe not much can be done to help the child develop an interest. So again, make sure the child is curious and capable (age and education wise) to engage with subject you want to introduce them to.

          Is there a certain kind of gift/kit/etc that was too complicated/specialized/specifically about learning?

          I’ve given examples already from my childhood, but for the most part I’d recommend not to give toolkits as first gifts. If one doesn’t have any idea what to do with it, or how to use it, it will either be forgotten or broken before one actually learns to use it properly.

          Was there an interest of yours that had been mistaken for an interest in programming?

          Well in my case it wasn’t programming, I had to teach myself all of that. Interestingly enough, I did always have a greater interest in things related to computers, but I guess my family were less interested in it, so they didn’t feel like supporting it. So the tip here would be to maybe transcend ones owns interest and actually try to support something the child actually likes.

          Were there redeeming parts of your experience that could be illustrative for a better approach?

          None of which I could think of spontaneously, I might edit the post later on if I come to think of something.

          Any specific input on what “he or she has a potential to understand it” means as it relates to your experience, or that would surprise a casual observer?

          “If the toy says ages 9-16, don’t give it to a 5 year old child” would be a good guideline. I’ve already implied it, but I’ll say it again, make sure the child’s first exposure isn’t this toy - 95% of the time this will go wrong, especially with younger children.

          Surely there are ways to go about giving gifts that involve learning (not necessarily as a primary focus) that isn’t “pressure”.

          Of course, the pressure I was talking about doesn’t (or at least in my case didn’t) come from the presents themselves, but the expectation from the people who gave them to me, to flourish or immediately develop a profound interest in the subject. I guess you could see this more as an attitude problem from the perspective of the gift-giver, but (depending of the child) he or she can feel that too. That’s the uncomfortable part, I really want children to be spared from.

          I feel like you have an interesting perspective to share, but it’s all hidden behind a dismissive post. Even if your experience was an unmitigated disaster, there is something you could offer beyond “don’t even think about doing this”.

          I apologize if my first commend was a bit too dismissive, I hoped my last paragraph would give the whole thing a positive turn, that’s why I added the footnote after the first sentence. But I hope I could clarify a few things now, and help you and anyone reading this with coming to an informed choice, when thinking about giving gifts with good intentions. Again, if it’s the right gift for the right person, it’s fantastic, but it’s not that easy to make sure that that is the case!

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            if you are lucky enough to be able to work with the child and the gift, or you know their parents will be supportive, then you might create an interest, otherwise @zge comment is unforutnately the likely outcome - unless you know that they already have an interest in that area.

            however, if the gift is fun and doable by the child then it can be a real success - although, the age on the tin is not helpful, my youngest is 7 years younger than her older siblings and she has aways played with age inappropriate toys :~)

            my 2 pence worth from the perspective of a being a Dad :~)

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              if you are lucky enough to be able to work with the child and the gift

              I wish I could edit the OP as this is exactly the case, and there has been expressed interest.

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                If it’s practical to do so, why not take the child somewhere where sciency toys are on display and see what he/she gravitates towards? I think if the learning is initiated by curiosity in the child then it’s more likely to have lasting effects.

                I started taking guitar lessons when I was five years old because my granddad saw me staring at a guitar and he asked me if I wanted to learn (and I did). I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was just given an instrument as a gift without anyone asking beforehand what I thought about it.

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          The board game Robot Turtles is nice for introducing the basic idea of giving instructions. The optional rules do allow it to play from ages 3 to 9 or so. I introduced the concept of putting multiple cards down much earlier than it recommended, though, as the couple 6+ kids were not engaged after the first game playing one card at a time. A house rule that worked very well for keeping the game interesting: put down a playing card as a barrier. Every instruction step, roll a die to determine which direction it randomly moves in. Having a program disrupted keeps the game interesting. And with younger kids, don’t hesitate to abandon the rules for a flight of fantasy if they want to tell a story or invent their own rules - better they remember the game as a fun toy and be open to playing again than forcing them to play properly and making it schoolwork.

          I gave an 9 year old the book Ruby Wizardry and he didn’t really get into it. Some parts were interesting, but I think the entire plan of starting from interactive text in the terminal may be a non-starter to modern kids. They’ve never seen a terminal before, so it has no relation to anything they know about computers. I think lessons will have to start with something like a web page or a gui, even though those want to drag in tons of concepts all at once.

          I gave that same kid, now 10, a copy of Game Maker Studio 2 and sat him down with this tutorial. He had the IDE on a laptop and the video on a tablet for ease of looking back-and-forth. I sat with him reading a novel with one ear cocked - he had to type everything, but I helped unstick him on bugs or add explanation to tricky bits. I only jumped in a half-dozen times, because I wanted him to have the experience of getting stuck and working through it rather than having an adult leading or swooping in to help - so a couple times when I saw minor trouble coming I made myself unavailable with chores/errands. The playlist is about two hours but it took him around seven hours with typing, bugs, experiments, playing, demos to every adult in the house, etc. I think in that seven hours he blinked maybe twice and I had to physically carry him away to dinner. So this was a big success that had him very interested to do more.

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            I think the key here is being able to have an adult remain engaged in the experience. With robot turtles the fun is that the kids get to boss around the adult for a change. Just giving the game and not sticking around to play is much more likely to end up disappointing.

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              With my 6yo daughter, we write the program before we run it, so she has to think where the turtle will be. We “run” the program through a debugger, so she has the ability to watch and make sure that the turtle is going to the right spot, and if not, fix it. She asks to play it now and then, so I guess she actually thinks its fun.

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            Personally I recommend the BBC micro:bit and all the various kits. These little things are superb!

            I run a chapter of Code Club at my local elementary school, and the kids love making all kinds of gadgets with one of these, coding in Python.

            http://microbit.org/

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              One step back from micro:bit (and not really programming) are the littleBits sets. The synth one in particular is great for kids just mature enough not to break it. You snap together oscillators and filters in a straight line and alter the sound that comes out of the speaker at the end. I suppose we could call it railway programming ;)

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              “Lauren Ipsum” was pretty good: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lauren-Ipsum-Carlos-Bueno/dp/1461178185

              Sort of Alice in Wonderland for computing.

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                I bought it from no starch press in their recent sale - arrived on Friday :^)

                I’d add Electronics for Kids to the list.

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                Colleagues were just talking about it yesterday.

                • ozobot: A small robot that you can program through color codes (draw lines on paper)
                • Human Resource Maching: a visual programming-based puzzle video game developed by World of Goo creator.
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                  Minecraft + Legos!

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                    Legos are basically the best toy ever, in my opinion. If your kids don’t have legos yet, buy some! :)

                    Especially just the brick sets as opposed to the kits, the kits always made me feel like I was forced into a limited number of designs. That said some of the bricks in the kits are super nice to have, like wheels and stuff.

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                    I bought a Lego Boost (Mindstorms for kids) for my 5yo, the editor is based on similar principles as Scratch, and was originally developed jointly with MIT. It seems like a good introduction and should help him figure out the basics of automation (he’s been telling me he wants to build robots).

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                      Scott Hanselman just put together a great list (and did so for the previous two years also): https://www.hanselman.com/blog/The2017ChristmasListOfBestSTEMToysForKids.aspx

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                        Don’t just buy them a Rasberry Pi & expect magic to happen. Pis are full Linux systems require a lot of ceremony before you even get to the point where you can turn on an LED.

                        If you think playing with hardware would be stimluating, then the BBC Microbits are pretty great - very simply to code, you can do everything online (on a Chromebook even), writing a bunch of python (or scratch, or all sorts of things) which is then compiled down to a single ARM binary blob which you write to the Microbit by copying the file to it (it pretends to be a USB mass-storage device, so this works everywhere.)

                        http://microbit.org/

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                          Definitely not just dropping a 7 year old into the world of a Rasberry Pi and saying good luck.

                          The fewer sharp edges to get caught on and cause frustration, the better.

                          Thanks for the recommendation!

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                          BrickPi is very nifty. It’s a Raspberry Pi adapter for Lego Mindstorms.

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                            A stereomicroscope

                            now every single object is interesting.

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                              These aren’t really programming-related, but they were one of my favorite toys as a kid: http://www.polydron.co.uk/

                              My friends and I played with them all the time in my math teacher’s classroom. Unintentionally learned lots about geometry along the way.

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                                Engibear/Engilina books (4 to 14?)
                                Paper aeroplane and bridge building books
                                Lego/Duplo
                                Those simplified programming applications, the one on the Google home page a week ago, various mobile apps where you choose various instructions or gates to instruct or control the flow of the logic
                                For 8-12 basic “snap on” electronic kits, big connections kind of like Duplo but for electronics
                                For 12ish+ Raspberry/Orange/Banana Pi (You will have to set it up for them the first time or at least help and get them started programming)

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                                  For a slight different approach for things to do with kids how about https://chibitronics.com/: learning technology through arts and crafts.

                                  Scratch from MIT can be fun, and ScratchJr is an app for a tablets, the current version of Scratch is unfortunately flash based (but Scratch 3.0 is in beta) and you can use a web based version called Snap! - which grew out of the build your own blocks project for Scratch.

                                  And the Pirates at Pimoroni have idea’s kits and instructions for kids!

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                                    What I’m trying this year for my 5 y/o:

                                    Find a decent portrait picture of the kid. Use INkscape and potrace to convert the picture into a recognizeable logo of the child in SVG format. Download something he/she might like from THingyverse. Stick the logo on a surface of the object.

                                    Send to a 3d printer.

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                                      At the risk of dropping in an advert (disclaimer, this is my own side project)…

                                      I’ve built a kit for kids and parents to build called the HIDIOT. It’s a simple arduino-esque board based on the ATTiny85 microcontroller that you build from the components up, then use in a variety of projects to learn coding and hardware hacking with the Arduino IDE.

                                      The docs are up here. Here’s the build instructions. I’d particularly recommend the tutorial on morse code to get an idea of what I’m aiming for. Currently I’m working on colour changing christmas lights, and over the next few weeks am going to add sensors and bluetooth support. The nice thing about this project is that after Christmas you can just reprogram the lights for use in their bedroom and link it to a phone, computer or home automation system.

                                      Also all the hardware and software is open source. There’s also a blog post on reading the HIDIOT schematic so you can learn exactly what’s happening under the hood. All the code and tutorials are adaptable to Arduino if you prefer that. And of course, you can reach me here, or just email support if you have any problems.

                                      If you want £5 off the gift pack, use the code XMAS17 at checkout.

                                      To answer a few questions:

                                      What approaches have you used to generate interest, projects have you done that were fun and rewarding, or any goals to aim for?

                                      The kids need to have something that engages them, usually an itch that needs to be scratched. The Christmas lights example is a good one. A lot of kids like being able to build something and control it in a way that feels rewarding. In the later tutorial docs, my colleague Aidan and I have tried to keep the reading level low, limit what’s taught and focus on the rewards rather than the process. It feels a bit backwards from an educational point of view, but it’s all about keeping interest up.

                                      Any pitfalls to avoid?

                                      Don’t leave the kids alone. They may get stuck and lose interest or might not know what to do next. Try doing something, then getting them to play with it, then getting them to do it themselves from scratch, and definitely reinforce what a great job they’re doing each time if you can.

                                      Any wisdom on what is appropriate and approachable for different ages?

                                      I get a lot of questions about soldering and age, to be honest as long as the kid has reasonable fine motor skills it shouldn’t be a problem, but it helps to make sure they’re safe and show them first. The HIDIOT was deliberately designed so you start by soldering 4 resistors, basically 8 equally spaced out points on the board. The point was to make it repetitive so you build a bit of muscle memory and it takes the fear out. Do the first two yourself, then get them to try.

                                      As long as you’re there to help them with the tough spots, most kids can handle pretty much anything if it’s rewarding enough.

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                                        You don’t mention gender of the child, so I’d like to throw in Goldie Blocks. They’re aimed at girls without being condescending. In general, I suggest books aimed at building scientific interest in kids less so than programming explicitly. I also agree with other commentators who mention tailoring more-so to the kid’s interests.

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                                          A micro:bit would be cheap and nice. I