We often do round ups of coding apps and games for children at Transcendit, but it's difficult to know how useful these apps are at teaching your kids the real-life skills they need to become programmers.
Are they beneficial? Are they a good way to teach the next generation of programmers? Or are we just all wasting our time, and in some cases, our money?
We decided to find out by putting a bunch of our developers in front of five of the most talked-about 'coding' games for kids. We asked the guys from our Gateshead office to play a game for five minutes with a coding novice (myself), and then give us their thoughts.
Reviewed by Christophe Duhaut
Apple Swift Playgrounds was unveiled to much fanfare last summer, and if you judge it on its looks alone it scores full marks. If you do sit down and play the game however, you're likely to be disappointed.
'There's too much reading, and it's so slow,' says Christophe. 'Even though its using the correct programming language it doesn't really feel like it's teaching you anything.' We aren't sure exactly how old Apple's target audience is, but the game had us reading some fairly lengthy instructions. We got bored very quickly, and don't think many kids would have the patience to stick with it unsupervised.
Christophe's final thoughts, 'I don't know if its really coding, or if its just teaching you logic. You learn the same things when you play a board game.'
Hopscotch - ★ ★
Reviewed by Lee Irving
Lee and I were also fairly frustrated with Hopscotch. As opposed to written instructions, the tutorial plays alongside your game in the corner of the screen, but unless you have bionic vision it's pretty difficult to follow.
After making a bear spin around and grow a few sizes, the poor usability got in the way of any potential fun and/or learning. We were still struggling with the teeny tiny instructions when the timer indicated our five minutes were up. Lee and I can't see this holding any child's attention long enough to teach them anything. Although, Hopscotch did at least attempt to teach skills beyond sequences.
Lee's final thoughts, 'You'd have to be patient enough to do the tutorials to know whether its worthwhile. It looks ok. But usability is awful.'
Human Resource Machine - ★ ★
Reviewed by Paul Callaghan
Paul picked Human Resource Machine, the only game on this list that comes with a price tag (£1.99). By his own admission he did play 'most of the levels' and rated it fairly highly for a 'retro geek puzzle', but poorly as an educational tool.
'It quickly turned into an exercise in really low-level programming. It was more about knowing obscure tricks from assembly language rather than important programming principles. You're also encouraged to "optimise" the code in order to reduce program size or run time, which definitely is not for beginners!'
Paul's final thoughts, 'This wasn't so much of a game as it was a form of torture.'
codeSpark - ★ ★ ★
Reviewed by Jonty Davis
codeSpark was a lot easier to understand than its rivals. There were no laborious instructions to read, the game used a cursor to tell you what to do instead. We got a lot of game-play in five minutes, but teaching coding and programming didn't seem like a priority. The levels we did relied on putting actions like run and jump into a sequence.
'It's teaching children that they have to program things in the right sequence, but that's basically it,' says Jonty. 'I don't see that its teaching children any particular coding skills, at least, no more than any other computer game would teach them - you do stuff, there's consequences.'
Jonty's final thoughts, 'I think its aimed at little children. It's certainly not aimed at me.'
Lightbot - ★ ★ ★ ★
Reviewed by Adam McCormick
Although Lightbot fell into a lot of the same traps that the other games did, it did feel a lot more enjoyable. The usability and interface are good, it's easy to get to grips with and you can start playing straight away. The tutorials and the lessons are combined with game-play, which makes it more palatable than the other apps.
We also packed a lot into five minutes. Lightbot went beyond just learning the basics of sequences and taught you how to use processes and loops; essentially how to abbreviate your code. As a novice, I felt like the lessons were a lot faster than the others, and I was learning a lot more.
Adam's final thoughts, 'You learn about sequences from basic maths, but the processes and loops are useful programming skills. It's pretty good.'
So what's the verdict?
None of us were blown away by these apps. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on teaching children how to understand sequences, which we'd argue they learn anyway by other means.
Paul Callaghan made no secret of his disdain for these kinds of games, 'It's easy enough cobble together some apparently relevant app. It often makes good headlines and publicity, but doesn't necessarily teach useful lessons. It can even be a step backwards for kids if the app encourages the wrong skills.'
Lightbot is definitely our top pick, with a good balance of learning and play and a simple interface that will appeal to both younger and older audiences. It's certainly the only game that this writer would consider returning to. But if your kids turn their noses up at it, Paul says, 'just introduce them to Minecraft.'
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