Jon Woodcock is a former physicist with a passion for computers and games, and the author of DK's expanding series of books that break down computer coding for kids and parents alike. The latest in the series is Coding Games in Scratch and we chatted with Jon to find out a bit more about why computer games aren't just a waste of time!
Jon Woodcock: Kids love playing computer games, which makes them a great way to create interest in programming. It's an obvious next step to want to know how games work and what's going on under the covers. Using a great tool like Scratch, it’s very easy to take a game player and turn them into an excited creator of games in just a few minutes. Most kids have a few ideas for computer games and knowing what you'd like to achieve, but not quite how to do it, is a real motivator for learning.
JW: My Dad is an engineer and when I was young he worked with folks keen to explore the new technology of the first home computers. It was very much like the Maker movement today, lots of people experimenting and building just for the joy of it. I got swept up into the whole thing and was exposed to cutting edge technology, but in a really supportive environment. It was natural to want to be able to create and control things - and to do that you needed to learn to program. I got a book on programming from the library and taught myself on paper. Eventually my family cracked and bought a very early kit computer. From then on I was programming 24/7 - games of all sorts were my favorite, but I also loved more abstract challenges like creating a spinning cube on screen, or generating prime numbers.
JW: Look around you at today's world, computers are everywhere: in your home, your car, at your work/school, even in your pockets - and with the Internet of Things even your fridge and trainers will have computers inside. We are living in the world of the computers. Being able to program a computer is like speaking another language - it enables an understanding of and access to a culture that you just won't get if you can't communicate on equal terms. An understanding of programming changes the way you think about and interact with the modern world.
JW: It's long overdue. There is a huge shift in education across the globe to transform kids from being consumers to being creators and innovators. Initiatives like the Raspberry Pi, Code Club and Hour of Code have brought coding to the attention of politicians. Cheap programmable devices are popping up everywhere allowing kids to experiment and explore technology without the traditional limits. Our world is made of information and "computational thinking" is a key skill for life today - the ability to break down and analyse problems and data in logical ways is vital - and that is at the very core of learning to program.
JW: That's hard - I have so many! I love that every game in the book is a jumping off point for the readers' own projects. If I have to pick just one, then probably the platform game - Dog's Dinner. You learn to create your own world inside the computer with gravity, structures you can jump to and from, dangers, rewards. It shows off beautifully that kids can use Scratch to make really challenging and fun games, but games where they have full control over the code, so they can shape and extend every aspect of the game's world. And all the time they're learning to think about how problems are broken down and solved within the computer.