Explain it like I’m 7.5: Does the space have an “outside”? Does it even have a “surface”?

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A while ago, my 7.5 year old son asked a seemingly simple question that had no easy answers at all. Instead of struggling with the question alone, I decided to tap into the collective intelligence of the whole world. Internet, after all, is supposed to be used for more than sharing cat videos, right? Right?

So, I asked:

One of the Internet denizens suggested that I ask the same question on Reddit’s ELI5 channel, that is, “Explain it Like I’m 5” channel. Being a casual Redditor for the last 14 years, I said “why not?” More

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Can kids learn to read at a very young age without you teaching them?

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I’m surprised at and thrilled by a very interesting article in the July-August 2012 issue of American Scientist. In his article, Prof. Dominic W. Massaro claims that it is possible for children to learn reading at a very young age, without explicit instruction. According to Massaro, with the help of latest advancements in cognitive science, computer science and mobile technology, the children can be immersed in an augmented environment in which they can acquire literacy intuitively. The full text of the article, “Acquiring Literacy Naturally” is currently available at http://mambo.ucsc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/2012-07MassaroFinal2.pdf.

Some highlights that really drew my attention:

“Notwithstanding the intuitive primacy of spoken language, I propose that once an appropriate form of written text is meaningfully associated with children’s experience early in life, reading will be learned inductively with ease and with no significant negative consequences. As described by John Shea in this magazine, “there are no known populations of Homo sapiens with biologically constrained capacities for behavioral variability” (March–April 2011). I envision a physical system, called Technology Assisted Reading Acquisition (TARA), to provide the opportunity to test this hypothesis. TARA exploits recent developments in behavioral and brain science and technology, which are rapidly evolving to make natural reading acquisition possible before formal schooling begins. In one instantiation (Figure 3), TARA would automatically recognize a caregiver’s speech and display a child-appropriate written transcription.”

Technology Assisted Reading Acquisition (TARA) implemented on a digital tablet automatically recognizes an adult’s utterance using automated speech-to-text recognition. In these examples, the adult’s comments are recognized and the digital tablet displays some of the words in high definition to the child. (Photographs courtesy of the author.)

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How can a group of kids multiply their creativity by learning to code?

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Recently we have decided to put Belgium on the map by introducing computer programming to kids by using the wonderful and child-friendly, multilingual Scratch programming environment. And what time could be better than the International Scratch Day 2012 for this mission? Thanks to the facilities and support provided by Antwerp International School, not only the students from this school, but also children from other parts of the Antwerp were able to join this one-day introductory workshop.

I had a lot of fun by watching the immense creativity of children from 9-year olds to 13-year olds. Before the workshop started I had some doubts, but the enthusiasm of the children, especially after learning the simplest programming concepts, and seeing that they could easily apply these to colorful graphics and sounds, had a powerful and multiplying effect on them. Another nice aspect of the event was the collaboration between children, between boys and girls; in order to help each other overcome some technical challenges. You can visit http://scratch.mit.edu/users/scratchdaybelgium12 to see a sample of the projects created by the children during the day.

One of the many projects created on the International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

One of the many projects created on the International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

The event lasted slightly more than 3 hours, and it turned out to be above my expectations: at the end of the day, we had to scratch the kids off the computers so that they could go home, and of course continue coding there, using what they learned that day and what they are going to learn in the upcoming days, with the help of Scratch community.

I hope this event is going to inspire similar events, because I believe in the importance of introducing computational thinking concepts and patterns to children from a very early age, so that they can be computational problem solvers in any field they choose to study in the future. I think this also means going beyond merely being a “digital  native”, and becoming a producer of ideas and implementations rather than just being a passive consumer of Internet entertainment and data explosion.

De Olifant in het Bad: Een interactieve iPad boek voor kinderen

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De olifant in het bad is een interactief boek voor kinderen tussen 1 en 10 jaar oud. Het verhaal gaat over een meisje, Zara en een olifant. Zara hoort een gedruppel in het huis. Vanwaar zou dit toch komen? Is er een olifant in het bad misschien?

Laat je kind ermee spelen! Belletjes ploffen, de bal gooien, verschillende gereedschappen gebruiken om het bad te herstellen, de olifant meehelpen… Ontdek het verborgen object op elke pagina. Vind je het haar van Zara niet leuk? Verander het dan maar… Je kan zelfs de zon verplaatsen.

Het originele versie van het boek is in het Engels. Het is vertaald en verteld door Tanya Gezgen zodat Nederlandstalige kinderen er ook veel plezier aan kunnen beleven.

Zara: de beste vriend van de olifant

Zara: de beste vriend van de olifant

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Let’s put Belgium on the map: International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp

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Let’s put Belgium on the map: International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

This is a free workshop for kids who want to step into the wonderful world of programming, creativity and computational thinking. For more information please visit http://day.scratch.mit.edu/event/593

International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

Programming for Kids – Action Time – Part 2 – Too young to hack?

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Too young to hack?

Too young to hack?


I had the great opportunity to attend to the second meeting of Devoxx4Kids yesterday evening. The main difference from the first one was the fewer number of people, but this in no way translated into a lack of enthusiasm or the intensity of brainstorming combined with fantastic surprises and toys.

We had our special guests from Dwengo, a Belgian non-profit that produces great electronic programmable boards (“everything in one package, better than Arduino” they say), as well as different types of robots and aim to bring together young minds and easily hackable systems together. After witnessing their demonstrations at the Robocup Junior event a few weeks ago, it was a serendipity for me to meet the creators of those systems in person.

I especially enjoyed the demonstration part during which the Dwengo founder took his Android smartphone, established a Bluetooth connection with the little Bluetooth chip add-on on the Dwengo robot and started to control the robot remotely, simply by moving his Android phone in different directions and speeds.

Later we compared the visual programming language developed by the Dwengo team, Dwengo Blocks, with the Scratch programming environment from MIT. It was nice to see that different teams from different parts of the world is converging when it comes to helping kids to learn program: Visual, yet powerful and flexible programming languages, browser-based, no-installation-needed programming environments, the ability to see behind-the-scenes of the visual program and the ability to control physical objects that act upon the real world.

Phones these days...

Phones these days...

For me, one of the most important outcomes of this meeting is that things started to take shape and we are on our way to work on creating a short, one-day educational introduction to computational creativity and thinking, as well as robotics and electronics. Thanks to the energy and organizational experience of Stephan Janssen and substantial input from the experienced group members such as Tasha Carl (of sagan.be fame), it seems like the result is going to be more than exciting.

Our son, now almost 9 months old is still too young for learning programming but I consider these meetings and the collaboration to follow a wonderful and great opportunity to prepare myself for the next years. I’m sure when he grows up he’ll be facing different technologies than what is available today but it is comforting to know that the grand unifying themes of computational thinking do not change that fast, and hopefully by the time he can understand what I say, I’ll be a much better guide.

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