A common (if pat) critique of video games is that they stifle rather than inspire creativity in children. Never mind that just the opposite might be true—that young gamers are often just as if not more creative than non-gamers. But what happens when children devise and create video games for themselves? That would demonstrate not only imagination, but also resourcefulness and follow-through—a marriage of just what we say we want from education.
With the Hopscotch iPad app, created by Samantha John and her co-founder Jocelyn Leavitt, kids learn about programming with by designing and writing code for their own animations and games. The app is divided into two parts: an editor that uses a simple visual language, where users can create their program, and a stage where they can see their program in action.
It’s a clever and painless way to introduce kids to the principles behind programming at an early age. If as a child you understand the link between a few simple commands and a screen full of happy, dancing octopi, that experience could steer you toward a life-long relationship with code. By offering that experience, Hopscotch’s founders not only aim to equip a younger generation with a valuable (and profitable) skill-set, but also remind all of us that learning to code is something we all can do—regardless of age.
"By the time they get to college a lot of people feel like they’re already hopelessly behind," says John, who grew up in suburbs outside Detroit and studied English and applied math at Columbia University in New York City. She didn’t learn to code until her senior year—when she needed to build a site but couldn’t find help—at which point she and a friend learned the script language PHP and built it themselves.
"I think this barrier of the 'have-programmed’ and the 'have-nots’ really turns a lot of people off from the field—especially women who tend to be less confident in their technical skills starting out," she says. "We wanted to make something that kids of all genders and inclinations could enjoy."
They haven’t released official numbers yet, but during the first week following its release, Hopscotch was downloaded more than 20,000 times. That means that thousands of kids are learning how to translate images in their minds into animated artwork and gameplay on screens. Among those 20,000 are a few of John’s favorites, like one child-made program that animates an 8-bit version of the beloved Nintendo character Mario during gameplay. Another popular game turns the iPad into an Etch-a-Sketch.
"A lot of programmers I’ve encountered started when they were kids. Having that early foundation really helps with confidence later on," says John. "Also, programming is fun! It’s too bad if kids have to miss out on it."