Educational Programming Environments for Children

If one considers programming a passion, then one can endlessly search for the "essence" of programming. Sooner or later, one faces the question: how can something as abstract as programming be taught to children? What will we teach our children?

This is a broad topic, so I will focus on describing some programming environments that I saw being used at educational events at the Google Zurich office. The usual disclaimer applies: the opinions herein reflect only my personal point of view, not necessarily that of Google.

Background and Setup

At the Google Zurich office, we occasionally organize events that teach (or rather: expose) programming to children. The occasion / program and audience were slightly different each time but what is common is the goals of supporting STEM education, closing the gender gap in CS, and at one of the events also giving kids an impression of what their parents are doing ... basically showing them that this stuff is fun. Note that this wasn't a controlled experiment of any sort - my comparison of the environments we used is more an afterthought.

I have participated in a few of these as facilitator and seen how three educational programming environments were applied in practice and I want to share a quick overview in the hope that it is useful for future events of this kind. These were:

  • Logo,
  • Agent Cubes, and
  • Scratch.

All three environments were used in their online variant in the context of educational events organized for groups of kids: 30-40 Chromebooks and a bunch of volunteers to help in case of questions. Many times, a single child would get a machine of their own, but we also did groups of 2-3. Sometimes we would spend some time briefing the volunteers, but this was pretty minimal.


This event was a 2h workshop and took place in November 2012. I was the main facilitator for it, and had previously written a logo interpreter ArrowLogo in my 20% time (*). I have also used it to discuss programming in a 30 minute session with a group of school children visiting the office in January 2015.

(*) I used to code in logo when I was a kid myself. There are other, Java-based Logo implementations available e.g. xlogo, but note that using these would require installation of a desktop app, or enabling Java plugin in a web browser. Installing desktop apps is often not an option (e.g. Chromebooks won't allow this), and enabling the Java plugins often turned out to be a security hazard in the past.

Logo was invented by Seymour Papert and others in 1967. The design of Logo is deeply rooted in constructivist learning and his Papert's book "Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas" is a very accessible resource that explains well how its creator viewed it as a tool not to teach programming but to approach education in general.

The summary is this: children are exploring the environment, essentially teaching themselves. The "teaching yourself" part will resonate with every programmer. LOGO achieves this by providing a facility for turtle graphics: kids need to instruct the turtle where to move in order to create paintings that way. This is simple procedural (imperative) programming.

For practical purposes, in a short workshop one will usually want to provide exercises to give some structure to the session; I was able to use LOGO teaching resources from ABZ, a group at ETH Zurich that is promoting informatics education for young kids. For beginners, it is very easy to come up with turtle graphics exercices: you can draw triangles, boxes, houses and move on to circles, flowers, filled box, colored paintings.

Something notable about Logo is that the childrens' activity is very close to what programmers do: manipulate source code in textual representation, run, even "debug". It also means that some basic typing skills and being able to navigate a very simple graphical user interfaces with a mouse are requirements.

Learning the ArrowLogo environment is very easy because it is very basic: there is a graphics panel, some place to write the code, and some commands to control what is happening, and that is it. The turtle graphics provides immediate feedback, and it is very easy to start over, giving children motivation to sort things out by themselves. After a short lead time, children seemed to be able to use the environment fine.

On the other hand, there are no fancy images or sounds, and building interactive things or games was out of scope. Also, ArrowLogo does not provide a way to save programs or take them home; since most programs written in this short time where basic and easy to reproduce, this did not seem to be a shortcoming.


This even took place in March 2015, the audience was young girls (ages 10-12) and each of them had their own chromebook. They accessed scratch.mit.edu with profiles that were created ahead of time (some confusion arose since some tried to treat their scratch profile intro as a (Google-) account).

Scratch is developed by the MIT media lab, which is a successor to the group that created Logo. Scratch offers a visual programming editor: kids can create and customize actors and control them through scripts. The scripts are not coded as textual source code, but by combining blocks by using drag-and-drop.

The user interface is complex. There is almost no typing needed, except for entering values; however a good command of a mouse and a good understanding of graphical user interface is essential and this was clearly a problem for some of the participants.

Scratch is fascinating for kids, because it enables them to do game or animation development. However, it is also a moderately complex environment to learn, and if one is not ready to deal with this complexity, then the insights into programming that children can get are quite limited.

I showed kids how they could add keyboard control for their actors or automate their movement, but I feel that at least with some part of the childen, there was no understanding for what is happening and why, and no engagement. With such a complex environment, it is easy to fall back into an "instructionist" pattern and tell kids every single step they need to take and ask them to mechanically repeat it. Alternatively, one can accept that some of the participants will be distracted by looking at different shapes, being obsessed with drawing things or playing sounds.

Kids could save their work, take their profile details home and continue. Though many said they would like to continue, I have some doubts.

Agent Cubes

Alexander Repenning visited Google to run an "Hour of Code" workshop in May 2014, using his software Agent Cubes Online.

Just as in scratch, the user can add agents and define behavior for them using rules. The focus is clearly on game design, and it is really easy to clone agents (e.g. think of the many trucks in the frogger game, all running the same code). The user interface for Agent Cubes Online however is even harder to get used to than scratch. There are too many buttons, most of them are too small. Like in scratch, there is a multitude of things that can be done, like draw your own agents.

The 'hour of code' was very structured: small demonstrations by the teacher would alternate with periods were kids were free to replicate the steps. Clearly, we have left any constructivist pretensions behind since the purpose is game design at all cost.

I think the level of engagement was clearly there, but it is hard to tell whether children would be able to "make it their own" later. Certainly, some kids enjoyed playing with the thing, but I don't think the majority of them thought of themselves as programmers or would return to game development.

Kids were able to save their work to their profile and could continue their work later. This required registering with their email address at the end of the workshop.

Conclusion: use code.org

My personal "conclusions" from all these were the following:
  • for kids, visual programming can be quite helpful, because it is appealing and easier to use. I am looking forward to seeing such a session with a touch screen interfaces
  • there seems to be a wide spectrum between turtle graphics and game development. "Flashiness" seems to be a factor in getting some kids engaged; or as the game development motto goes "[audiovisual] content is king"
  • ArrowLogo is seriously lacking facilities for developing interactive things or animations.

While doing some research, I found there is a more convincing solution in this design space. The Google-developed blockly library for visual programming has been used at the code.org Hour of Code to create an introductory experience that easily beats all three environments that I described above; I mean: you can code turtle graphics by controlling a Disney(tm) character using visual programming blocks, and the character makes realistic ice-skating sounds as it moves!

I think if we take a step back, we will see that nothing can be concluded: it seems that the quest for the "right" answer will continue. I hope I have at least been able to shed some light on factors that contibute to successful intro-to-programming event for kids.

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