Kids and Computers

In which I fall into a trap about modern expectations

July 8, 2008
programming children

Update: This did not turn out as I hoped. The main reason being that an old ZX Spectrum pre-dates the common availability of the Internet, and as soon as it was switched on the question arose, how one could watch YouTube videos on this machine. So, abject failure. Times have moved on, kids these days don’t know they’re born, good old days, it was so much better when I was young, spoilt kids nowadays etc etc etc.

Like many(?) computer people of my generation I started off with the Sinclair ZX81, and then continued with the ZX Spectrum and onwards to an Amstrad CPC, learning BASIC and Z80 machine code (because those machines were actually pretty slow). This also means that I treat computers as tools, not passively using programs other people have written, but writing my own stuff. In time I moved on with languages, from Pascal to C, a bit of Prolog, C++, Java, and now Erlang. But those endless hours typing in program listings in BASIC have surely benefitted me. Learning by doing. Type in small programs, change the code, observe what happens.

My oldest daughter is seven, still half my age when I started with computers, but from next year onwards they have ICT classes at school; these basically seem to be ‘how to change fonts in MS Word’. So I thought I’d better show her that a computer program is something you write, not just something you use. The only problem was, how to do it? Despite all its faults, BASIC seems to me to be a good language to start with. True, it has few control structures or abstract data types, but it reads almost like English, and is only a starting point after all. And it’s only a first step in any case.

The next question is how to get her interested. Using a PC seems like overkill, and you need to boot it up, and shut it down, and then start a development environment etc. And I guess it’s not that easy to use graphics or sound as it was on the old Spectrum. So, I went to ebay and bought a ZX Spectrum +2 for about £7. You plug it in, it’s on. You can start typing. You’re finished, you unplug it. No files to get corrupted. And it’s got a built-in tape recoder for storage.

And, she is really excited. It’s her very own computer, and she already knows several commands. All I need now is a few books with BASIC programs, so that she has some material to type in. In the meantime I go with her through the manual, explaining the new keywords, and she can already understand how a program is executed. With any luck she’ll get hooked, especially once she learns how to do graphics with it. And the little games (‘guess the number’) are also the right level for her, and maybe even her sisters.

The only problem I can see is printing. But I’ve got an emulator on my laptop, which might be able to read in something she saves, and I might be able to take it from there.