Helping Children to Learn Hard Things: Computer Programming with Familiar Objects and Actions

Ken Kahn, Animated Programs (

The following is the introduction to the chapter in the book The Design of Children's Technology, edited by Alison Druin, published by Morgan Kaufmann, 1998.


Some children, when introduced to something new and complex, will jump in and explore because they enjoy exploration and are good at it. Others are much more timid and will explore only if coached or guided. Others ask for instructions and follow them meticulously. Some children will carefully watch a demonstration, while others are impatient to try things themselves.

It is possible that there is a style of learning that dominates others in effectiveness and appeal. The position taken here, however, is that children differ, and that all these learning styles have their place. Even an individual child may switch styles as circumstances and experiences change.

Given the wide variety of ways that children learn, how should we design software for children? This chapter attempts to answer this question by looking closely at our experiences with the design and testing of ToonTalkŪ.

ToonTalk (Kahn 1996, 1998) is an animated world where children build and run programs by performing actions upon concrete objects. The child builds real computer programs by doing things like giving messages to birds, training robots to work on boxes, loading up trucks, and using animated tools to copy, remove, and stretch items.

ToonTalk has been tested with 4th grade classes for the last 3 years. Initially, it supported only an exploratory learning style. Some children quickly began exploring and tried to figure out what each item does and how to combine them. Most, however, asked for guidance. This led to the development of enhancements of ToonTalk that cater to children with different learning styles. ToonTalk now includes a puzzle game that plays the role of a tutorial. This appeals most strongly to children who tend to like to solve problems but are less comfortable exploring on their own. An animated character named Marty was added to ToonTalk that acts like a coach or guide in ToonTalk. Some children like to hear suggestions from him and follow them. Others quickly send Marty away because they find him annoying. A set of narrated demos of ToonTalk was created for those who like to sit and passively be shown how to make things. Illustrated instructions on how to build some programs were produced. These too appeal to a subset of the children.

Children of different ages, experiences, and learning styles approach the same software in very different ways. The main lesson we can take away from this experience is that children differ in the degree to which they are motivated and effective at exploring (on their own or with an animated guide), or following instructions, or solving a puzzle sequence. Even the same child will prefer different styles of interaction depending upon her prior experience with the software. Ideally, a software program should be designed so that a wide variety of children might enjoy and benefit from it.

Download the entire paper as an Adobe Acrobat file (PDF) - 657KB.

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