Scratch the cat -- the Scratch mascot.

Give the gift of knowledge this Christmas

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The Ghost of Christmas Past

I have many fond childhood memories of excitedly waiting for Christmas Day in the hope of receiving the latest computer hardware or game. Of course, back in my day, all I wanted was an Amiga (I finally got one when I was 9).

I was a geek long before it was trendy (I’ve always been ahead of the curve, me!). But in all truthfulness, that wasn’t always the case. When I was five, I remember my dad coming home with a Sinclair Spectrum +2.

Sinclair Spectrum +2

I was distinctly unimpressed by it at the time. The games came on cassette and each one took about 15 minutes to load. Even once finally loaded, you only had to issue a single key stroke at some inopportune moment to bring the whole system crashing down.

The Spectrum and its sworn enemy, the Commodore 64, were machines that knew how to test your patience. As a five year-old in particular, I had very little patience. I never saw eye-to-eye with that machine.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

But, only a few years later, I began to realise the potential of computers (and noticed how much better the games had become). The time had come to switch allegiances to the Commodore camp. Enter the Commodore Amiga.

Commodore Amiga 600
Amiga A600

The Amiga was an absolute masterstroke of engineering, and a proud victory of marketing: it had literally thousands of games available for it (many of which were affordable, even for small pockets). The best thing was that you could convince your parents to buy you one for Christmas by promising you’d use it to do your homework.

And in all fairness, I didn’t just play games; the Amiga taught me how computers worked. It made me think about how humans interacted with machines, and through the burden of necessity, it taught me how to identify problems and fix them.

Most importantly for me, it laid the foundations for an enjoyable and exciting career in web design. It also paved the way for my fascination with how everything in this world works, and what we can do to make things work better.

I didn’t fully embrace programming until much later in my life. But by learning how to break problems down into digestible parts I learnt how to solve not only computer problems, but problems in real-life too.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Like many people this Christmas, you might still be feeling the pinch of the credit crunch. You might not be able to afford all the expensive presents your kids want this year, but you can still give them something valuable.

Scratch the cat -- the Scratch mascot.
Scratch the Cat

If you have children, and any spare time over the festive season, I’d highly recommend having a play around with Scratch from MIT. It’s free, and there’s no need to know any programming languages — you simply drag and drop the logic into place and hit ‘play’.

The key thing is that it teaches problem solving skills in a way that appeals to children. Even if you don’t feel ready to take the plunge and create your own projects yet, you can just play around with other people’s work.

Solving problems together

Just recently, I wrote a simple shell script with my son. Whilst that is more difficult than using Scratch (I am a programmer after all), the point is that we both had fun, we both learnt something, and we solved a problem together.

At the end we had a program that could count to 100 in multiples of one or two. When he gets a bit older, we’ll write a program that asks him what the multiple of two numbers is and tells him if he’s right or wrong (or close). There are clear learning outcomes here, but it doesn’t feel like work.

The fact is, you don’t need to be any good at it; you don’t need to produce anything that’s any use; and you don’t have to show anybody the results. Break stuff, fix it, and break it again. Evolution didn’t happen overnight.

Working through a problem with your kids will reinforce your relationship, give you an enormous sense of achievement, and most importantly give your children an opportunity to learn the language of problem solving.

My son doesn’t have to grow up to be the next Mark Zuckerberg to benefit from learning that a problem is just a puzzle waiting to be solved. Although, having said that, it would be nice to know I’ve got a comfortable retirement coming my way!

Merry Christmas one and all!

However you decide to spend the festive season, all that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2014!