Teach a Child to Code

A board game can teach, through play, a young mind the basic concepts of coding

Children learn by playing. Smart people have known this for eons. Plato suggested that in order to teach, we should “Not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” So if you want to teach a child to grow up and become a coder, the best way – according to some mighty philosophers – would be to play a game that teaches the concept. Later, when their minds are ready to sit down and work, they can learn the details. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force.” That is the sneaky plan behind a new game, Robot Turtles, from ThinkFun.

Robot Turtles is a board game. No computers. No code. No screen. Just a playing board, pieces, and cards. But by playing it, with an adult, children – as young as preschoolers and up to about age eight -- learn basic principles of coding. From commands to subroutines to the idea that the computer will do only exactly as you tell it.

In fact, that last is the role the parent plays. “This game gives the adult a very specific role,” explains Bill Ritchie, President of ThinkFun. “That of the computer. And it’s very important that the parent not cheat. Because that is the concept you are teaching through play: The computer will do exactly as the child tells it.” If you have ever played a board game with a child, you know that not cheating is not as easy as it sounds. Children want to bend the rules, win when they didn’t, or give you points you didn’t earn. They are charming about it. And they are often persistent. It’s very tempting to let them have their way. It is only a game, after all, right? With this game, though, not cheating is integral to the game and you have to take your job …er play… seriously.

The game started as a Kickstarter campaign and, after raising $630,000, completely sold out – over 25,000 copies -- there. But ThinkFun bought it up and is bringing it out, updated and more affordable ($25), this summer. If you preorder it at ThinkFun you get a free special edition expansion pack.

For Bill Ritchie this game, of all the games ThinkFun has brought to the market, holds a special meaning. Ritchie’s brother was Dennis Ritchie, the creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the UNIX operating system. Bill is bringing the game to market in honor of his brother. “Dennis was considered by many to be the greatest coder of all time,” says Bill. “Robot Turtles would have been his favorite ThinkFun game yet!”

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