In case you missed it, learning how to program is all the rage these days.
There are programming boot camps, summer camps, weekends, websites, and probably even sun-free programming cruises. (Well, at least you'd always have the pool to yourself during the day.) A world of opportunities exist for adults, teens, and even the youngest of kids to gain the skills involved to master their computing devices.
And, as luck would have it, there are programming board games out there, too. And they're actually a blast.
Before getting too far into this, let's deal with an obvious question: What can you learn about programming from a board game?
Actually, you can pick up quite a lot. Although you won't any learn specific programming languages, you'll strengthen your logic and problem-solving skills, which are the foundation of all programming (and most of life).
These games sharpen your ability to analyze a big problem from different directions, crack it into more manageable parts, and then come up with creative steps to address them.
Programming-oriented board games create a safe place for players of all ages to take their problem-solving skills for a test drive. This is especially important for kids, since hands-on experimenting is a vital way for them to learn.
And, of course, the games give you a great framework for interacting with your kids. But you knew that already.
You can get your kids on the problem-solving train very early with Robot Turtles from ThinkFun ($24.99 MSRP).
This game amazes me. I wish it had been around when my kids were four and five, because it does so many things right with introducing programming, keeping the kids engaged, casting the parent in a key non-competitive role, and offering plenty of room to grow.
Yes, it's really that good.
Up to four “turtle masters” (the kids) can play with one “turtle mover” (an adult or older sibling). Each turtle master gets a turtle, a deck of movement cards, and a unique goal. Giving each turtle its own goal was a stroke of genius. It provides a feeling of competition in the form of a race, but does it through indirect competition.
The game's board layout reinforces indirect competition by having each turtle start in its own corner. This basically eliminates the temptation for players to mess with each other. Instead, it subtly encourages them to focus on solving the problem.
With the littlest of kids, you can play the game as a simple step-by-step race to turn and move your turtle so it gets to its matching colored gem. Players pick one movement card (turn right, turn left, or move ahead) and announce their choice. The turtle mover (mom or dad) moves the turtle, because only the turtle mover gets to touch the board. (Kudos on that, since it completely avoids the whole “You moved my turtle!/No I didn't!” argument before it even starts.)
The game gently grows with your children as they gain experience moving their turtles. You can add obstacles in the form of ice walls that the turtles need to melt out of the way, stone walls that your turtle has to avoid, and crates your turtle can push around. The programming challenges grow as well by having the children use the “function frog” to combine several movement cards into a single command.
The instruction book includes plenty of examples that bring the game to life, plus a nice script for the parent/older sibling to read to the players before playing for the first time. The script quickly and easily explains everybody's part in the game. You'll be playing in moments, which is vital for keeping a four year-old's attention!
Follow the instructions carefully at every stage of the game. You want to keep the children engaged, but with the right amount of challenge. Give them time and let them have fun, because they're still secretly learning. If you push too fast and make the game too complicated, they'll get frustrated.
You know your children best, so work with them and be patient. You'll do fine at this.
Next time, we'll raise the age bar by a few years and look at two classic robot movement games for ages 10 and up that take very different approaches to the problem. Both games introduce direct competition between the players, but in very unique ways. (And one has all kinds of crazy robot weapons and defensive systems, which is just freaking awesome.)
Put a note on your calendar for the first Saturday in November for the first-ever Dad Game LIVE event at the Dupont Branch Library. It'll be a chance to share about connecting with your kids, try new games, and generally have a wonderful time. For now, save the date and watch for more details!